COVID-19 Triggers Largest Life Expectancy Decrease Since Second World War 

Nicky Broyd

September 27, 2021

Oxford's Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science finds years of improving life expectancy have been swept away by the pandemic in countries across most of Europe, the US and Chile.

The research is published in the International Journal of Epidemiology and covers 29 countries, including the UK.

It showed that life expectancy in 2020-2019 was down across all four UK nations:

  • England and Wales: -0.91 female, -1.14 male

  • Scotland: -0.51 female, -1.06 male

  • Northern Ireland: -0.81 female, -0.76 male

Women in 15 countries and men in 10 countries had a lower life expectancy at birth in 2020 than in 2015, a year that also saw deaths increase due to flu.

Study co-lead author, Dr José Manuel Aburto, said in a statement: "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."

In most of the 29 countries studied, there were larger life expectancy declines for males than females.

US Data

The biggest life expectancy fall was seen in US males, a decline of 2.2 years in 2020.

Co-lead author, Dr Ridhi Kashyap, said: "The large declines in life expectancy observed in the US can partly be explained by the notable increase in mortality at working ages observed in 2020. 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."

Mortality reporting methods varied. However Dr Kashyap said: "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."

Delayed Treatment

The authors wrote: "The pandemic also indirectly affected mortality from other causes of death. Emerging evidence has highlighted the impacts of delayed treatments or avoidance of care-seeking for cancers or cardiovascular diseases resulting in increased mortality from these conditions, whereas lockdowns may have reduced the number of deaths due to accidents."

Separate analysis from The King's Fund published today finds people living in England's most deprived areas are 1.8 times as likely to experience a wait of over a year for hospital care as those in the most affluent areas.

Chief Analyst, Siva Anandaciva, said: "Waits for hospital treatment were already rising before COVID-19. But the pandemic has pushed NHS waiting lists to record levels and laid bare the deep health inequalities in our country.

"It is not a surprise that waits for NHS care vary across the country but the fact that patients in deprived areas are nearly twice as likely to wait a year or more for planned treatment should be a wake-up call for a government that has committed to levelling up the country, and ring alarm bells for MPs in 'red wall' constituencies.

"The Government’s forthcoming plan to tackle the backlog of care must include a strong focus on tackling health inequalities and avoid a one-size-fits-all approach, otherwise there is a real risk that patients from our most deprived communities will continue to wait the longest for the treatment they need."

ONS – Figures May Improve

Last week, Office for National Statistics (ONS) data showed that UK male life expectancy fell for the first time in 40 years due to COVID-19.

Life expectancy at birth 2018 to 2020 was 79.0 years for males and 82.9 years for females.

That's a fall of 7 weeks for males and a slight increase of 0.5 weeks for females compared with 2015 to 2017.

Pamela Cobb from ONS commented: "Life expectancy has increased in the UK over the last 40 years, albeit at a slower pace in the last decade.

"However, the coronavirus pandemic led to a greater number of deaths than normal in 2020. Consequently, in the latest estimates, we see virtually no improvement in life expectancy for women compared with 2015 to 2017, at 82.9 years, while for men life expectancy has fallen back to levels reported for 2012 to 2014, at 79 years. This is the first time we have seen a decline when comparing non-overlapping time periods since the series began in the early 1980s.

"These estimates rely on the assumption that current levels of mortality, which are unusually high, will continue for the rest of someone’s life. Once the coronavirus pandemic has ended and its consequences for future mortality are known, it is possible that life expectancy will return to an improving trend in the future."


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