New research this week puts the enormous loss of life caused by the covid-19 pandemic into greater context. The study of 29 countries across Europe and North and South America found that nearly all experienced a reduction in life expectancy last year, while some countries had the largest drops seen since World War II.
Life expectancy at birth is a commonly used metric of a country’s overall health. It estimates how long the average person born in a particular year (2020, for example) would be expected to survive, given current trends in mortality among different age groups. Over time, life expectancy has trended upward in many countries, thanks to more people living longer into their senior years. But when annual deaths increase significantly for whatever reason, especially when these deaths involve younger people, life expectancy can go down. In the U.S., for example, life expectancy had inched lower in recent years due largely to drug overdoses.
Researchers in the UK and Denmark tried to quantify the impact of the pandemic last year on the life expectancy of 29 countries, using mortality figures from 2015 to 2020. These countries included the U.S., Chile, and most of Europe. The results were published Monday in the International Journal of Epidemiology.
Overall, life expectancy dropped from 2019 to 2020 in 27 out of 29 countries, and 22 countries experienced a drop larger than half a year. Many countries saw a loss that effectively wiped out five years of progress, with women in 15 countries and men in 10 countries having a life expectancy lower than what was recorded in 2015. Some, including the U.S., also experienced a year-to-year drop not seen since other great calamities like the end of the Soviet Union or World War II.
“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 WWII,” said co-lead author José Manuel Aburto, a population health researcher at the University of Oxford, in a statement by the university.
The bulk of this loss in life expectancy was attributed to official covid-19 deaths, as well as deaths among those over 60, who are the most vulnerable to dying from the viral illness. But some places, including the U.S., were hit harder by deaths among younger people.
“The large declines in life expectancy observed in the U.S. can partly be explained by the notable increase in mortality at working ages observed in 2020,” study author and fellow Oxford researcher Ridhi Kashyap said in the same statement. “In the U.S., 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.”
Though older people are more likely to develop severe illness, many are dying before they would normally be expected to, and the loss of younger people has added up as well. One study estimated that 9 million years of life have been lost to the pandemic in the U.S. alone, as of March 2021 (since then, yet another deadly wave of the pandemic has occurred).
Covid-19 vaccines have undoubtedly saved many lives since their debut late last year and will continue to do so moving forward. But much of the world is still poorly vaccinated, and the U.S. is on track to lose more people to the pandemic in 2021 than last year. So the effects of covid-19 on our life expectancy will remain substantial for the foreseeable future.