The study, led by scientists at Oxford University’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, analysed data on mortality from 29 countries, covering the majority of Europe, the US and Chile – countries for which official death registrations for 2020 had been published.
According to the paper, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, the researchers discovered that 27 of the 29 countries saw reductions in life expectancy in 2020, at a scale which wiped out years of progress on mortality.
Men in 10 countries and women in 15 countries were found to have lower longevity at birth in 2020 than in 2015, a year in which life expectancy was already negatively affected by a significant flu season.
However, the largest decline in life expectancy were among males in the US, with a fall of over two years relative to 2019 levels.
Life expectancy losses exceeded those recorded around the time of the dissipation of the eastern bloc in central and eastern Europe, according to the research.
According to the study’s co-lead author doctor José Manuel Aburto: “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.”
However, Aburto says the scale of the life expectancy losses was surprising across most countries studied: “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 contextualise, it took on average over five 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.”
It comes as the office for national statistics (ONS) revealed that male longevity in the UK had plummeted for the first time since records began 40 years ago because of the impact of the public health crisis.
According to the ONS, a boy born between 2018 and 2020 is expected to live until he is 79 years old, down from 79.2 for the period of 2015 to 2017.
Aburto said that across the majority of the 29 countries, males saw larger life expectancy declines than females.
Co-lead author, doctor Ridhi Kashyap said: “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.”
In addition to these age patterns, the scientist’s analysis revealed that most life expectancy reductions across different countries were attributable to official COVID-19 deaths.
Dr Kashyap said: “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 paper also found 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.
Losses in life expectancy are also likely to vary substantially between subgroups within countries.
However, a lack of data currently limits direct and more disaggregated comparisons across a wider range of countries, but these are urgently needed to understand the full mortality impacts of the pandemic.
In the UK, the ONS estimates showed variations between the different parts of the UK in terms of life expectancy, which refers to the average age to which a newborn would live if current death rates continued for their whole life.
Life expectancy for males has fallen in England, from 79.5 years in 2015-17 to 79.3 years in 2018-2, and Scotland from 77 to 76.8.
However, it has risen slightly in Northern Ireland from 78.4 to 78.7, while staying broadly unchanged in Wales at 78.3.