Life expectancy reduced in 2020 after steady increase for 15 years: Study

Lena Weib

The reduction of life expectancy across the globe during the first year of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic was alarming, reversing progress made in past years, according to a new study. 

Observed life expectancy in 2020 reduced in 29 of the 37 countries surveyed compared to the expected figures, the report published in the British Medical Journal November 2021 showed. It decreased by 1.1-2.3 years for men and 1.1-2.1 years for women.

New Zealand, Taiwan and Norway recorded increases while the figures remained unchanged for Denmark, Iceland and South Korea. 

“Life expectancy, a widely used metric of mortality, is an indication of how long on average people can expect to survive if the age specific mortality rates of that year remain constant for the remainder of their life,” the study explained.

Russia recorded the largest drop in life expectancy — for men it fell by 2.33 years and for women by 2.14 years. This was followed by the United States, where the figure for men reduced by 2.27 years and by 1.61 for women. 

In Bulgaria, the life expectancy for men fell by 1.96 years and by 1.37 for women. For Lithuania, it fell by 1.83 years and 1.21 years for men and women respectively. In Chile, it fell by 1.64 years for men and 0.88 years for women and in Spain, it decreased by 1.35 years for men and 1.13 years for women. Luxembourg was the only country where women recorded a larger drop in life expectancy than men.

The other countries included in the study were Austria, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, England and Wales, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Scotland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and Switzerland.

“More than 28 million excess years of life were lost in 2020 in 31 countries, with a higher rate in men than women. Excess years of life lost associated with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 were more than five times higher than those associated with the seasonal influenza epidemic in 2015,” the study noted.  

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, all 37 countries recorded an increase in life expectancy between 2005 and 2019. Only in 2015 was there an anomaly, where life expectancy dropped during the influenza outbreak. 

“Overall, the excess years of life lost (YLL) in the 37 countries was 5.5 times higher during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 than the excess YLL associated with the seasonal influenza epidemic in 2015, according to the report. The absolute difference was of 2,050 years of life lost per 100,000, it added. 

However, it must be noted that the 2015-2016 influenza outbreak was not only less damaging than the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the mildest of the three such outbreaks in the past. The only countries that did not have an excess in YLL were Chile, Estonia, Luxembourg, Latvia, Finland, New Zealand, Russia and Taiwan.

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