Progress on mortality rates was “wiped out” in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic led to the biggest fall in life expectancy since World War Two.

That is the finding of a study by a team from the University of Oxford who looked at mortality data from 29 countries – covering most of Europe, America and Chile – and reported that life expectancy losses were greater than those seen in central and Eastern European countries during the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc.

Out of the 29 countries studied, 27 saw a fall in life expectancy during 2020, with a significant rise in mortality of those of a working age in America.

The study’s co-lead author, Dr José Manuel Aburto, 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 WW-II.
“Twenty-two countries included in our study experienced larger losses than half a year in 2020. Females in eight countries and males in 11 countries experienced losses larger than a year. 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.”
Co-lead author Dr Ridhi Kashyap added: “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.”

The team’s findings show a greater decline in life expectancy in males rather than females. The biggest fall was seen in American males, whose life expectancy dropped by 2.2 years compared to 2019 levels. They were followed by Lithuanian males, with 1.7 year drop in life expectancy.

Dr Ridhi Kashyap explains: “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.”

The findings have been published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

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