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Covid has wiped out years of progress on life expectancy, finds study

·3-min read

The Covid pandemic has caused the biggest decrease in life expectancy in western Europe since the second world war, according to a study.

Data from most of the 29 countries – spanning most of Europe, the US and Chile – that were 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, according to the research, led by scientists at Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science.

Dr José Manuel Aburto, a co-lead author of the study, said: “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 the second world war.”

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.

Last week, 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 the impact 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. Most life expectancy reductions across different countries were attributable to official Covid deaths, according to the paper.

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. However, he added that “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.”

The ONS estimates from earlier this month showed variations between the different parts of the UK in terms of life expectancy, which refers to the average age to which a newborn would live if current death rates continued for their whole life.

Life expectancy for males has fallen in England, from 79.5 years in 2015-17 to 79.3 years in 2018-2, and Scotland from 77 to 76.8. But it has risen slightly in Northern Ireland from 78.4 to 78.7, while staying broadly unchanged in Wales at 78.3.

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