Covid sparks biggest fall in life expectancy since second world war

Newsletter: The Road to Recovery

The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered the largest falls in life expectancy since the second world war in most developed nations, with American men suffering the most severe losses.

A study of death records across 29 countries, spanning most of Europe, the US and Chile, found 27 nations experienced reductions in life expectancy in 2020 at a scale that wiped out years of progress on mortality, according to research led by scientists at the University of Oxford.

Men suffered larger life expectancy declines than women across most nations. The largest declines in life expectancy were observed among males in the US, who experienced a decline of 2.2 years relative to 2019 levels, followed by Lithuanian males, with a decline of 1.7 years.

“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 world war two,” said José Manuel Aburto, the study’s co-lead author.

Women in eight countries and men in 11 countries experienced losses in life expectancy larger than a year while 22 nations experienced losses of life expectancy of more than half 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,” said Dr Aburto.

Covid deals a blow to longevity -  Difference in life expectancy (years)

The fall in life expectancy in the US in 2020 is unprecedented for both females and males, according to available data that stretch back to 1933 during the Great Depression. American women’s life expectancy declined by 1.65 years in 2020, when compared with the previous year.

In the US these large declines in life expectancy can partly be explained by the notable increase in mortality among working-age people.

“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,” said Ridhi Kashyap, co-lead author of the study.

Health experts have attributed biological differences and behavioural factors to the higher rates of serious illness among men, at least in the short term, compared with women.

“While women and men tend to get Covid-19 at fairly similar rates, men seem to get more seriously ill in the short term — though, interestingly, women report higher rates of ‘long Covid’,” said David Dowdy, associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University school of medicine.

 “Compared with women, men often behave in ways that work to the virus’s advantage. Not only do we get in each other’s faces a bit more but we’re also slower to seek help when we get sick.”

The study was led by scientists at the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford and published in the International Journal of Epidemiology on Monday.

The study defined life expectancy as the average age to which a newborn would live if current death rates continued for their whole life.

Simonne Stigall

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