Some countries have not seen life expectancy decline as sharply since World War II as it is now – due to COVID-19.
According to a new study published today in the International Journal of Epidemiology. For the study, the scientists looked at data from 29 countries, including the United States, Chile and most countries in Europe. And in 27 of these countries, life expectancy was found to have decreased by 2020. And good too. “For Western European countries – such as Spain, England and Wales, Italy and Belgium, among others – the last time we saw such a sharp decline in life expectancy at birth in one year was during World War II,” said researcher José Manuel Aburto.
What is life expectancy?
Life expectancy does not predict how long people will live. Instead, it reveals how long a newborn will live on average if the then-determined death rates were maintained throughout his/her lifetime.
If we look at the figures from Belgium, we see that girls born in 2015 still had a life expectancy of 83.19 years. For the girls born in Belgium in 2019, a life expectancy of 84.10 years was recorded. In 2020, however, life expectancy will take a big dive; girls born in that year had a life expectancy of 82.95 years. It means that life expectancy has decreased by 1.14 years in one year. Boys born in Belgium in 2015 had a life expectancy of 78.62. In 2019, that life expectancy for male newborns had risen to 79.76. But in 2020, it dropped again to 78.56. A decrease of 1.19 years (compared to 2019).
In the Netherlands, newborn girls had a life expectancy of 83.01 years in 2015. Girls born in 2019 had a life expectancy of 83.52 years. Girls born in 2020 had a life expectancy of 82.95, a decrease of 0.57 years (compared to 2019). Boys born in 2015 had a life expectancy of 79.68 years. For newborn boys in 2020, life expectancy was 80.58. In 2020, it dropped again to 79.78. A decrease of 0.80 years (compared to 2019).
Large orders across the board
These are significant decreases that are more the rule than the exception – at least in the countries studied. “22 of the countries studied saw life expectancy decrease by more than half a year in 2020. For women in eight countries and men in 11 countries, the decline was even greater than a year. To put that into context: it recently took these countries an average of 5.6 years to increase life expectancy by 1 year; so that progress has been wiped out by COVID-19 in the course of 2020.”
What is also striking is that the life expectancy of men has decreased more than that of women in all 29 countries studied. The largest decreases in life expectancy are seen in the United States, where the life expectancy of boys born in 2020 is 2.2 years lower than that of boys born in 2019. The United States is closely followed by Lithuania, where life expectancy for boys born in 2020 is 1.7 years lower than that of newborn boys in 2019.
The large declines in life expectancy seen in the US can be partly explained by the remarkable increase in mortality among people under the age of 60, said researcher Ridhi Kashyap. “While in most of Europe, the increase in mortality among people over 60 actually contributed (to the reduced life expectancy, ed.).” The researchers’ analysis also shows that the decrease in life expectancy in most countries can be traced to corona deaths.
“The fact that our results show that COVID-19 has such a large, direct impact (on life expectancy, ed.) emphasizes how shocking the pandemic has been for many countries,” said Kashyap. More data and research is desperately needed to find out what impact the pandemic has had worldwide – including in low- and middle-income countries.”