• A number of countries anticipate or have recorded significant reversals in life expectancy due to the pandemic.
  • According to experts, more can be done to return to a positive trajectory despite the lingering crisis.

2019 was a banner year for life expectancy – the global average at birth hit 72.6 years, higher than any country in the world had managed to record in 1950. Then, 2020 happened.

A number of countries either anticipate or have recorded life expectancy declines for a year overshadowed by a deadly pandemic. Life expectancy has long been a widely used benchmark for general health and development, and a reversal of progress on the indicator is yet another sobering reminder of COVID-19’s impact.

France had added more than a half-decade to life expectancy at birth between the 1990s and a recent disclosure that in 2020 it declined by 0.4 years for women and 0.5 years for men due to the pandemic.

In the US, life expectancy fell by a full year in the first half of 2020, according to the National Center for Health Statistics – marking its biggest drop since World War II.

One study found that Spain’s life expectancy declined by 0.9 years in the 12 months leading up to July 2020. And in England and Wales, life expectancy for women and men declined by an estimated 0.9 years and 1.2 years, respectively, during the bulk of 2020 compared with the same period in the prior year.

The pandemic’s impact on life expectancy will likely be felt disproportionately in places where it's relatively high, such as Europe and North America, one analysis has suggested – only because other regions have had lower survival rates into old age.

However, for several decades developing countries have been steadily closing that gap.

Image: World Economic Forum

Often, the path to increased life expectancy has not been a smooth one. In Cambodia, for example, life expectancy at birth dipped astonishingly low during the political upheaval and bloodshed of the 1970s, before surging higher in the following decades.

In the US, life expectancy had been hindered prior to the pandemic by increased rates of drug overdose and suicide – the results of an opioid crisis that's impacted some racial and ethnic groups disproportionately.

The country’s COVID-19-related reversal has its own stunning racial and ethnic implications; life expectancy for Black Americans declined by 2.7 years in the first half of 2020, wiping away two decades of gains and abruptly widening a gap with whites that had been narrowing.

Getting back on track and continuing to increase longevity will require following recommendations for reducing risk, like wearing masks and limiting social interaction. Some health officials have recently recommended double masking as a means to help prevent the spread.

Image: World Economic Forum

According to one projection if 95% of Americans wear masks amid the ongoing vaccine rollout, some 66,000 lives could be saved in the US alone. There have been some encouraging signs of late in a number of countries – a decline in deaths among the most elderly in the UK, for example, and tangible results from Israel’s speedy vaccine rollout.

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Does re-opening schools lead to increased life expectancy? In this analysis, two experts take a closer look at an article that drew attention for suggesting that pandemic-related school closings created greater projected mortality rates. (Brookings)
  • Indian states recently began reporting mortality data for 2020, and according to this analysis it may contradict previous assumptions about an ”invisible disaster” of severe undercounting of COVID-19 deaths. (Observer Research Foundation)
  • You don’t have to consult a fortune teller – researchers at the University of East Anglia recently developed an app enabling people to calculate their life expectancy, and hope it will encourage healthier lifestyles, according to this report. (The Conversation)
  • Efforts are underway to calculate “healthy” life expectancy (as opposed to just life expectancy) particularly for relatively developed countries. According to this report, it’s a tricky endeavour that involves a lot of data on inequality levels and lifestyles. (Asian Development Bank)
  • Deaths from drug overdoses started spiking in the US last spring as pandemic lockdown measures were first implemented, according to this report – resulting in the highest number ever recorded in the country in a single year, and likely further undermining life expectancy. (STAT)
  • The coronavirus is described as an invisible “enemy” and countries “battle” COVID-19, but some experts worry about the simplistic comparisons often made between the death tolls of past wars and the current pandemic, according to this report. (Kaiser Health News)
  • The UK has one of the worst per capita COVID-19 death rates in the world despite its highly-rated public health service. This analysis explores what can be learned from the country’s experience, including an appreciation of the health impacts of income inequality. (Center for Global Development)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to COVID-19, Ageing and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

Image: World Economic Forum