Pandemic causes global life expectancy to fall to World War II level

posted on 10/18/2022 05:00

(credit: AFP)

Since World War II, life expectancy on the globe has not been as low as estimated in 2020, according to a study published yesterday in the journal Nature Human Behavior. With data from 29 European countries, in addition to Chile and the United States, the article reflects the mortality caused by the covid-19 pandemic, but also indicates that health policy interventions, such as vaccination, managed to reverse this index. This is because deficits began to decrease in 2021 in nations with high immunization rates.

Both the authors and independent experts point out, however, that life expectancy is not a prediction of how long an individual will live. Instead, it provides a snapshot of current mortality conditions, so it is fully associated with the reality of that moment.

In the case of the study, the index indicates the average age that a person born in 2020 and 2021 would live, if the pandemic continued to kill as much as in those years. Instead of pointing to a demographic trend, life expectancy reflects the impact of Sars-CoV-2 and allows comparing how different countries have been affected. As people did not die of Covid-19 alone during the period studied, other factors associated with mortality, such as chronic diseases and low human development index, need to be considered.

The study, by the Leverhulme Demographic Science Center at the University of Oxford, UK, and the Max Planck Demographic Research Institute, Germany, showed that “covid-19 has led to global mortality changes unprecedented in the last 70 years.” . Data provided by 31 countries indicate that in those with higher proportions of fully vaccinated people, life expectancy deficits were lower.


According to the article, “a clear geographic divide appeared in 2021.” The researchers found that most Western European countries managed to recover from previous rates, either fully (such as Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium and France) or partially (Wales, England and Spain, among others). In the United States, Chile and Eastern Europe, the pandemic accentuated losses that had been recorded in the pre-coronavirus periods in middle-aged people. In the European bloc, “the scale of life expectancy losses during the pandemic was similar to those seen last time, on the occasion of the break-up of the former Soviet Union”.

According to the study, the discrepancy in life expectancy between eastern and western Europe was greater in countries that already had lower pre-pandemic levels. Of those studied, Bulgaria was the hardest hit, with a drop of nearly 43 months in two years of coronavirus. “Bulgaria, Chile, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia experienced substantially higher life expectancy deficits in 2021 compared to 2020, indicating a worsening mortality burden over the course of the pandemic. “, says the article.


Although Brazil did not enter this analysis, a previous study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, in June of last year, pointed to a decline of 1.3 years in 2020, “a level of mortality not seen since 2014”, according to the article, signed by researchers from the United States and the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Among the states, the most affected was Amazonas, which lost 60.4% of the improvements recorded since 2000.

For one of the co-authors of the study released yesterday, it is possible that the country, like Mexico, will continue to suffer the demographic impacts of the pandemic, for longer. “In 2020, the life expectancy losses suffered in Brazil and Mexico exceeded those experienced in the United States. So it is likely that both will continue to suffer mortality impacts in 2021 — even potentially exceeding the 43 months we estimate for Bulgaria “, says José Manuel Aburto, demographer at the Max Planck Institute and the University of Oxford.

According to Diego Ramiro, from the Institute of Economics, Statistics and Demography of the Council of Higher Scientific Research of Spain, in the USA, “researchers show how the pandemic accentuated the losses in life expectancy that already appeared in pre-pandemic periods in middle-aged people”. The interpretation would be the continuation and worsening of an existing situation. “In 2020, most of the excess non-covid-19 deaths in men in the US were due to external causes (primarily due to drug overdoses and homicide), nearly 80% of which were of working age,” said Ramiro, in a statement.

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