COVID-19 pandemic has triggered the biggest drop in life expectancy since WWII

OXFORD, United Kingdom — COVID-19 has killed over four and a half million people worldwide, according to estimates. Now, researchers from the University of Oxford report that the coronavirus pandemic has also sparked a drop in life expectancy not seen in Western Europe since World War II. Similarly, this longevity decline even exceeds the fallout from the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc in both central and Eastern European countries.

To come to these conclusions, study authors analyzed an unprecedented mortality dataset encompassing 29 different countries including Chile, the United States, and most of Europe. A total of 27 of the 29 included nations reported life expectancy reductions in 2020. Even worse, the recorded declines essentially wiped out the decades’ worth of progress modern society had made in terms of longevity in recent years.

More specifically, the study finds females in 15 countries and males in 10 countries have a lower life expectancy if born in 2020 in comparison to 2015. It’s worth noting that life expectancies had actually dropped in 2015 due to a particularly bad flu season – which means the 2020 decline was even more extreme than the data may indicate.

“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,” says co-lead study author Dr. José Manuel Aburto in a university release.

Where is life expectancy falling the most?

For reference, “life expectancy” refers to the average age a newborn baby would live to if current death rates at the time and place of their birth remained consistent for the entirety of their life. So, while “life expectancy” is not a true prediction of one’s date of death, it does serve as an indicator of current health conditions within a given area or country at a specific time.

“22 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,” Dr. Aburto continues.

Across the majority of countries in the study, men experienced greater life expectancy drops than women. The U.S. holds the dubious distinction of recording the largest 2020 drop in male life expectancy: a decline of 2.2 years in comparison to 2019. Lithuanian males saw the second largest decline, with an average reduction of 1.7 years.

According to co-lead study author Dr. Ridhi Kashyap, the major drops in U.S. life expectancy are at least partially due to significant mortality increases among adults of working age.

“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,” he explains.

COVID’s ‘devastating’ legacy

Importantly, study authors clarify that the vast majority of life expectancy declines across various countries are indeed connected to deaths officially attributed to COVID-19.

“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,” Dr. Kashyap concludes.

The study appears in the International Journal of Epidemiology.