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Pandemic triggers biggest fall in life expectancy in decades — 29-country study

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered significant mortality increases in 2020 of a magnitude not witnessed since World War II in Western Europe or the breakup of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. The biggest declines in life expectancy were among males in the US, with a decline of 2.2 years relative to 2019 levels.

Data from most of the 29 countries – spanning most of Europe, the US and Chile – analysed by scientists recorded reductions in life expectancy last year and at a scale that wiped out years of progress.

The biggest declines in life expectancy were among males in the US, with a decline of 2.2 years relative to 2019 levels, followed by Lithuanian males (1.7 years).

Life expectancy losses exceeded those recorded around the time of the dissolution of the eastern bloc in central and eastern Europe, said the researchers, led by scientists at Oxfordʼs Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science.

Dr José Manuel Aburto, a co-lead author of the study, said: “For western European countries like 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 World War 2.”

The findings are contained in a paper published in the International Journal of Epidemiology after the analysis of the 29 countries for which official death registrations for last year had been published. A total of 27 experienced reductions in life expectancy.

The Office for National Statistics estimated that life expectancy for men in the UK had fallen for the first time in 40 years because of COVID-19. A boy born between 2018 and 2020 is expected to live until he is 79, down from 79.2 for the period of 2015-17, according to the ONS.

Aburto said the scale of the life expectancy losses was stark across most of those countries studied, with 22 of them experiencing larger losses than half a year in 2020.

“Females in eight countries and males in 11 countries experienced losses larger than a year. To contextualise, 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.”

Males experienced larger life expectancy declines than females across most of the 29 countries.

Dr Ridhi Kashyap, another co-lead author, said researchers were aware of several issues linked to the counting of COVID deaths, such as inadequate testing or misclassification.

“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.”

Study details

Quantifying impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic through life-expectancy losses: a population-level study of 29 countries

José Manuel Aburto, Jonas Schöley, Ilya Kashnitsky, Luyin Zhang, Charles Rahal, Trifon I Missov, Melinda C Mills, Jennifer B Dowd, Ridhi Kashyap

Published in International Journal of Epidemiology on 26 September 2021

Abstract

Introduction
More than 1.8 million lives are estimated to have been lost due to COVID-19 around the world in 2020. This estimate—although staggering—masks the uneven impact of the pandemic across different countries and demographic characteristics like age and sex, as well as its impact on population health, years of life lost and longevity.

Moreover, variations in testing capacity coupled with definitional inconsistencies in counting COVID-19 deaths make the true global toll of COVID-19 infections difficult to estimate with accuracy. To address these measurement challenges, significant efforts have been directed at the harmonisation and analysis of all-cause mortality data. A widely used approach to quantify the burden of the pandemic using all-cause mortality is through the analysis of excess mortality, defined as the number of deaths observed during the pandemic above a baseline of recent trends.

Here we go beyond excess deaths and country-specific analyses and focus on the pressing issue of revealing the impacts of the pandemic on life expectancy from a cross-national perspective.

Background
Variations in the age patterns and magnitudes of excess deaths, as well as differences in population sizes and age structures, make cross-national comparisons of the cumulative mortality impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic challenging. 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.

Methods
Life tables by sex were calculated for 29 countries, including most European countries, Chile and the USA, for 2015–2020. Life expectancy at birth and at age 60 years for 2020 were contextualised against recent trends between 2015 and 2019. Using decomposition techniques, we examined which specific age groups contributed to reductions in life expectancy in 2020 and to what extent reductions were attributable to official COVID-19 deaths.

Results
Life expectancy at birth declined from 2019 to 2020 in 27 out of 29 countries. Males in the USA and Lithuania experienced the largest losses in life expectancy at birth during 2020 (2.2 and 1.7 years, respectively), but reductions of more than an entire year were documented in 11 countries for males and 8 among females. Reductions were mostly attributable to increased mortality above age 60 years and to official COVID-19 deaths.

Conclusions
The COVID-19 pandemic triggered significant mortality increases in 2020 of a magnitude not witnessed since World War II in Western Europe or the breakup of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. Females from 15 countries and males from 10 ended up with lower life expectancy at birth in 2020 than in 2015.

 

The Guardian article – Covid has wiped out years of progress on life expectancy, finds study (Open access)

 

International Journal of Epidemiology article – Quantifying impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic through life-expectancy losses: a population-level study of 29 countries (Open access)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

SA and world COVID deaths 3x higher than official figures — The Economist

 

Independent COVID-19 response review: WHO and governments failed

 

WHO joins Health Department investigation into Eastern Cape’s high COVID-19 death rate

 

 

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