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Life expectancy continues to decline due to Covid

According to a recent study led by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research and the University of Oxford, global life expectancy did not recover in 2021 after the mortality shock caused by the Covid pandemic. However, comparing this findings to historical events such as the Spanish flu pandemic from 1918, offers hope for rapid improvements in life expectancy over the next years.

By examining changes in life expectancy in 29 countries, the experts found that most countries in the study – including the United States, Chile, and 27 European countries – experienced period life expectancy (a measurement of the risk of death to which a population is exposed to within a year) decline for a second year in a row. 

“The United States is a particularly tragic example; in 2021 the country managed to normalize mortality among those over 80 to pre-pandemic levels, but mortality among those under 80 increased,” said study lead author Jonas Schöley, an expert in Population Health at Max Planck. Thus, period life expectancy in the U.S. declined for two years in a row – by 25.5 months in 2020 and by another 2.7 months in 2021.

Life expectancy returned to pre-pandemic levels in just a few Western European countries, such as Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Sweden. In much of Eastern Europe, for example, the mortality crisis worsened from 2020 to 2021. “This is particularly evident in Bulgaria. In 2021, period life expectancy was 3.6 years below pre-pandemic levels,” said Schöley. Although Bulgaria had the lowest vaccination rate by the fall of 2021 among all the countries studied, this factor alone cannot fully explain the recent disparities in life expectancy between Eastern and Western Europe. According to Schöley and his colleagues, differences in healthcare systems and general living conditions may have also played a critical role.

A worrisome finding regards the change in age patterns related to Covid-induced mortality. “A notable shift between 2020 and 2021 was that the age patterns of excess mortality shifted in 2021 towards younger age groups, as vaccines began to protect the old,” said study co-author Ridhi Kashyap, a professor of Demography and Computational Social Science at Oxford.

Fortunately, historical comparisons show that, although previous pandemics such as the Spanish flu in 1918 also caused period life expectancy to plummet, the recovery was quite rapid. “Covid-19 has triggered one of the most severe mortality crises worldwide in the past 100 years. Past crises, however, only temporarily interrupted the trend of increasing life expectancy,” Schöley concluded.

The study is published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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