In Western Europe, Covid-19 Caused the Biggest Drop in Life Expectancy Since World War II

The study authors say the pandemic may have an even greater impact on life spans in less developed countries that were not included in the research

A female doctor wearing protective equipment sitting on the floor of a hospital hallway in Italy
A new study reveals life expectancy in many counties fell by more than 6 months from 2019 to 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Alberto Giuliani via Wikimedia Commons under [CC BY-SA 4.0]

According to a new study, the Covid-19 pandemic caused the largest decrease in life expectancy since World War II in some Western European countries, seemingly wiping out years of progress. The analysis of nearly 30 countries found the largest decline was in American men, whose life expectancy dropped by 2.2 years relative to 2019 estimates.

"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," says study author Ridhi Kashyap, an associate professor of social demography at the University of Oxford, to Victor Jack for Reuters.

The study, which was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, compared the change in life expectancy in 29 counties spanning most of Europe, the United States and Chile between 2019 and 2020. They found that life expectancy in 22 of the counties fell by more than 6 months for both sexes. Generally, researchers found the biggest decreases in life expectancy for men compared to women. Life expectancy for American women dropped by almost 1.7 years—a smaller decline than men’s 2.2 years—but still the largest decline in life expectancy for women among any country in the study. Men lost more than a year in 15 of the countries studied, compared to women in just 11 countries.

“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,” says study author José Manuel Aburto, also a researcher at the University of Oxford's Department of Sociology, to the Guardian’s Ben Quinn. 

In the U.S., the death rate primarily rose among young and middle-aged people, while in Europe, the most significant increase in mortality was for people over 60 years old. Only Denmark and Norway, which have both taken aggressive measures to control Covid-19, avoided drops in life expectancy. The recent work echoes a study published earlier this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that average life expectancy dropped more rapidly than it has in the past seven decades, decreasing by 1.5 years to a 77.3 years average life expectancy. More than 4.5 million people worldwide have lost their lives to Covid-19 and last week Covid-19 surpassed the 1918 flu to America’s deadliest-ever pandemic

The study authors point out that Covid-19 may have an even greater impact on life spans in less developed countries that were not included in the research due to limited data. The study didn't consider race and income in life expectancy calculations, but the research team noted American men may have suffered the steepest drop due to both high rates of certain medical conditions compared to European men, and unequal access to health care. Covid-19’s disproportionate toll on communities of color exacerbated already existing gaps in life expectancy between white and black Americans, reports Jason Gale for Bloomberg.

“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,” says Kashyap to Reuters.