COVID-19 Caused Biggest Life Expectancy Drop Since World War II: Study

The COVID-19 pandemic caused life expectancy losses not seen since World War II in Western Europe, according to a study of 29 countries led by scientists from Oxford University.

The research from Oxford's Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science was published Sunday in the International Journal of Epidemiology. The 29 countries studied by the scientists included the United States, most of Europe, and Chile.

The report found that life expectancy dropped in 27 out of the 29 countries studied, with the biggest decrease observed among males in the United States, who saw a decline of 2.2 years compared to 2019's life expectancy levels—followed by males in Lithuania (1.7 years).

A coronavirus particle
Oxford University scientists released findings that show decreases across many countries in life expectancies due to COVID-19. This undated stock image shows an artist's illustration of a coronavirus particle. iStock

"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," Dr. Ridhi Kashyap, an associate professor at Oxford University and co-lead author of the study, said in a statement.

"The large declines in life expectancy observed in the U.S. can partly be explained by the notable increase in mortality at working ages observed in 2020," Kashyap continued. "In the U.S., 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."

Dr. José Manuel Aburto, the study's co-lead author, said in the news release: "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."

According to the research, women in 15 countries and men in 10 countries were found to have a lower expectancy at birth in 2020 than in 2015. A notably bad flu season in 2015 had already negatively affected life expectancy for that year.

Aburto noted that "22 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."

Kashyap called for additional data from more countries to get a clearer picture of the impact the pandemic has had.

Last week, Johns Hopkins University's data showed that COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. had surpassed 675,000 people—about the same amount of Americans who died from the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).