New research this week puts the huge loss of life caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in a larger context. A study of 29 countries across Europe and North and South America showed that almost all of them experienced a decline in life expectancy last year, while some countries had the largest decline recorded since World War II.
Life expectancy at birth is a common measure of a country’s overall health. It is estimated how much the average person born in a given year (for example 2020) would be expected to survive, given current mortality trends among different age groups. Over time, life expectancy has increased in many countries, thanks to an increasing number of people living longer. But when the annual number of deaths increases significantly for any reason, especially when it comes to younger people, life expectancy can be reduced. In the US, for example, life expectancy was long declined in recent years mainly due to drug overdose.
Researchers in the UK and Denmark tried to quantify the impact of last year’s pandemic on the life expectancy of 29 countries, using mortality data from 2015 to 2020. These countries included the US, Chile and much of Europe. The results were published On Monday in the International Journal of Epidemiology.
Overall, life expectancy fell from 2019 to 2020 in 27 of the 29 countries, and 22 countries experienced a decline of more than half a year. Many countries have experienced a loss that has effectively erased five years of progress, with women in 15 countries and men in 10 countries having life expectancy lower than that recorded in 2015. Some, including the United States, also experienced an annual decline unseen by other major disasters such as 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 reductions in life expectancy at birth were recorded in one year during World War II,” said one of the leading authors, José Manuel Aburto. population health researcher at the University of Oxford, ua statement by the university.
Most of this loss in life expectancy is attributed to official deaths from Covid-19, as well as deaths over the age of 60, which are most at risk from death from viral disease. But some places, including the U.S., have been hit harder by death among younger people.
“The large decline in life expectancy observed in the U.S. can be partly explained by the significant increase in working-age mortality recorded in 2020,” study author and fellow Oxford researcher Ridhi Kashyap said in the same statement. “In the United States, an increase in mortality in the under-60 age group has contributed most significantly to a reduction in life expectancy, while in most of Europe, an increase in mortality above the age of 60 has made a significant contribution.”
Although older people are more likely to develop a serious illness, many die sooner than would normally be expected, and the loss of younger people has increased. One study estimated that in the U.S. alone, 9 million years of life have been lost by the pandemic since March 2021 (another deadly wave of pandemics has occurred since then).
The Covid-19 vaccines have undoubtedly saved many lives since their debut late last year and will continue to do so as they progress. But much of the world is still poorly vaccinated, and the U.S. is on the track lose more people due to the 2021 pandemic than last year. Thus, the effects of COVID-19 on our lifespan will remain significant in the foreseeable future.
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