Life expectancy is a widely used indicator that provides a clear and cross-nationally comparable picture of the population-level impacts of the pandemic on mortality. However, COVID-19 has caused the biggest decrease in life expectancy since World War II, reports a new study.
The COVID-19 pandemic triggered significant mortality increases in 2020. Such losses were not seen since World War II.
The study, led by Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, assembled an unprecedented dataset on mortality from 29 countries, spanning most of Europe, the US, and Chile. Scientists found a significant reduction in life expectancy in 27 out of 29 countries in 2020.
Women in 15 countries and men in 10 countries were found to have a lower expectancy at birth in 2020 than in 2015, a year in which life expectancy was already negatively affected by a significant flu season.
Study co-lead author Dr. José Manuel Aburto said, “For Western European countries such as Spain, England, and Wales, Italy, Belgium, among others, the last time such large magnitudes of declines in life expectancy at birth were observed in a single year was during WW-II.”
“But, the scale of the life expectancy losses was stark across most countries studied. Twenty-two countries included in our study experienced larger losses than half a year in 2020. Females in eight countries and males in 11 countries experienced losses larger than a year. To contextualize, it took on average 5.6 years for these countries to achieve a one-year increase in life expectancy recently: progress wiped out over the course of 2020 by COVID-19.”
Overall data suggest that males saw more significant life expectancy declines than females. The largest declines in life expectancy were observed among males in the US, who saw a decline of 2.2 years relative to 2019 levels, followed by Lithuanian males (1.7 years).
Co-lead author Dr. Ridhi Kashyap said, “The large declines in life expectancy observed in the US can partly be explained by the notable increase in mortality at working ages observed in 2020. In the US, increases in mortality in the under 60 age group contributed most significantly to life expectancy declines, whereas across most of Europe increases in mortality above age 60 contributed more significantly.”
“In addition to these patterns, the analysis reveals that most life expectancy reductions across different countries were attributable to official COVID-19 deaths.”
“While we know that there are several issues linked to the counting of COVID-19 deaths, such as inadequate testing or misclassification, the fact that our results highlight such a large impact that is directly attributable to COVID-19 shows how devastating a shock it has been for many countries. We urgently call for the publication and availability of more disaggregated data from a wider range of countries, including low- and middle-income countries, to better understand the impacts of the pandemic globally.”
- José Manuel Aburto et al. Quantifying impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic through life-expectancy losses: a population-level study of 29 countries. DOI: 10.1093/ije/dyab207