Covid Deaths Have Erased Years Of Progress On Life Expectancy — Especially In The U.S.

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
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Life expectancy changes a little with every year that passes — it is a measure of the average age to which a newborn would be expected to live as long as the current average age of death remained static during their lifetime, and it is a measure used to asses the health of a population.

For decades now, global human life expectancy has trended upward. As time marches on, and with it the progress of science and healthcare technology, humans have, on average, tended to live longer and longer. In fact, since 1900, global life expectancy has more than doubled, and is now over 70 years.

Of course, huge inequalities exist across the life expectancy geographic spectrum: A person born in the Central African Republic is only expected to live 53 years, while a person born in Japan has a life expectancy of 83 years.

Various factors contribute to these differences in average life expectancy, from genetics to lifestyle to the public health systems in place to ensure the wellness of a population.

And … Global Pandemics Also Impact Life Expectancy.

Of all the crappy news that has come out of the pandemic, some of the most sobering comes from a recent study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology. Researchers collected death data from 29 countries, including most of Europe, the United States, and Chile. They found that 27 of the 29 countries had, for the first time in decades, experienced a decline in life expectancy.

And yes, they attribute that decline to COVID-19.

Scientists analyzed the data using “decomposition techniques” (essentially, filtering variables to ensure the relevant data points are counted) and discovered that the greatest losses were found in the increased mortality numbers among the 60 and older population due to COVID-19 deaths.

The largest losses happened among men in the U.S. and Lithuania. U.S. men lost 2.2 years of life expectancy and Lithuanian men lost 1.7 years. Overall, men lost more than a year of life expectancy in 11 out of the 29 countries, and women lost more than a year in 8 out of the 29 countries. The greater losses for men reflect what we already knew about COVID-19 — that statistically, the virus is more lethal to men than women.

2015 was a particularly awful flu season and caused average life expectancy to stagnate. And yet, from 2015 to 2020, females in 15 of the 29 countries and males in 10 of the 29 countries still saw a reduction in life expectancy.

The only groups that saw no declines in life expectancy were males and females in Denmark and Norway, and females in Finland. Study authors believe this is likely due to early non-pharmaceutical interventions combined with a strong healthcare system, enabling these countries to fare better than others.

The Greatest Decline In Life Expectancy In Decades


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Still, the study’s authors pointed out that such dramatic losses in life expectancy had not been seen since World War II in Western Europe or the breakup of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe.

Authors of the study also noted that “emerging evidence from low- and middle-income countries (such as Brazil and Mexico) that have been devastated by the pandemic suggests that life-expectancy losses may be even larger in these populations” and that different demographic subgroups within countries would differ in the amount of life expectancy lost. That goes back to those factors that influence average life expectancy — public health measures being among the top contributors.

The increase in mortality may have been driven by COVID-19, but not all deaths were directly caused by it. Study authors wrote that an indirectly related factor contributing to a higher number of deaths is the reduction in overall care capability within our healthcare system as well as a delay of treatment or a reluctance to seek treatment — all of these factors still indirectly caused by COVID-19. By now we all know someone who put off necessary healthcare because they were worried a COVID-19 infection may be more likely to kill or sicken them than the health issue for which they needed treatment.

How Long Will It Take To Come Back From This?

To some, two years of life expectancy lost may seem a small number, easy to overcome. But the countries included in the study above took an average of 5.6 years to increase their life expectancy by one year. That means that many of these countries lost the life expectancy progress of 5.6 years. Some countries, like the U.S., likely lost more than a decade of progress (the U.S. has experienced slower gains in the last decade).

The U.S. is considered a superpower. Economically and in terms of our military might, our numbers are unmatched. And yet, so is our number of COVID-19 deaths. And, according to this study, it was the U.S. who had the greatest losses of all 29 countries included in the study. What a horrific thing to be number one at.

Maybe it’s time we start asking what this “win” says about us, and more importantly, what it says about our values.

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