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COVID-19 helps sink Missouri life expectancy to four-decade low

Emma Seitz, 23, of the Central West End, receives a COVID-19 test on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022, in Grand Center. The testing site is open to the public and is run with support from the Kranzberg Arts Foundation and Grand Center, Inc.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Emma Seitz, 23, of the Central West End, receives a COVID-19 test in early 2022.

As the coronavirus pandemic wore on, life expectancy in Missouri fell to the lowest it’s been in four decades, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Health and Senior Services.

In Missouri, the average person born in 2021 could expect to live to be 74.6 years old, a whole three years younger than the average age ten years ago. The state’s drop is part of a nationwide decline, though the life expectancy in Missouri is lower than the United States average.

Life expectancy, like infant mortality, is one of the major indicators of a population’s overall health, said Lynelle Phillips, vice president of the Missouri Public Health Association. When the number goes down, it’s a sign that people are sicker and aren’t getting the health care they need.

“Looking at life expectancy is generally a first step,” Phillips said. “But you want to drill deeper down into any health disparity issues, causes of death. How many of these deaths are preventable? How much of it has to do with health care access, living circumstances and poverty and everything that goes into quality of life?”

Officials from the health department point to COVID-19, an increase in homicides, and overdose deaths as reasons for the continued drop. Deaths also outpaced births for the second time in more than a century of data collection.

Cancer and heart disease were the most common causes of death. COVID-19 took the third-place spot and unintentional injuries –which include drug overdose deaths – was fourth.

In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, many of the people who died from COVID-19 were elderly people in their 70s, 80s and older, state health officials said in a September report. In 2021, the number of people younger than 65 who died from COVID-19 doubled, which contributed to bringing the state’s average expectancy down.

For most of the 20th Century, life expectancy grew as vaccines, prevention and treatment for polio, cholera and other infectious diseases became common, said Dr. Kate Lichtenberg, a family medicine physician in St. Louis. But the coronavirus pandemic brought infectious disease deaths roaring back.

“As we got through the 1900s, and into the 2000s, it's become more chronic illnesses [that’s killing people],” she said. “And so heart disease, cancer, all of those types of things. And what's been interesting is we've had infectious disease thrown back in again over the last few years with COVID, on top of already having the chronic illness. “

People are also developing high blood pressure, heart disease and other chronic health conditions earlier in life, Lichtenberg said. The younger a patient is when they develop heart disease, the more time there is to wear down their body.

The average life expectancy in Missouri has been in a general downward trend for a decade. Even before the pandemic, fatal drug overdoses increased in working-age adults as the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl became ubiquitous.

Missouri has a low-funded public health system, said Dr. Dalen Duitsman, the Director of the Ozarks Public Health Institute at Missouri State University.

That contributes to the state’s low national ranking in life expectancy. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state is ranked in the bottom fourth of the nation.

“We simply do not have the resources of other states to implement and support programs that would help improve life expectancy,” he said.

Until more political will is directed toward making people healthier, the life expectancy will likely continue to decrease, Phillips said.

“Wehave the lowest public health funding in the entire country,” Phillips said. “So that has shown to definitely affect issues like life expectancy and infant mortality when you don't have that emphasis on prevention and primary care and creating circumstances where people can thrive and be healthy.”

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.