COVID pandemic knocked 1.6 years off global life expectancy, study finds

An older man stands in front of the National Covid Memorial Wall in London in the UK.
A man looks at the National Covid Memorial Wall in Westminster, central London. Both England and the U.K. as a whole saw declines in life expectancy at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Image credit: SOPA Images / Contributor via Getty Images)

Global life expectancy — the average number of years a person can expect to live from their time of birth — dropped by 1.6 years at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, new research shows.

Global life expectancy had been on the rise until the pandemic struck, jumping from 49 years in 1950 to more than 73 years in 2019, according to the new study, published Tuesday (March 12) in the journal The Lancet. But between 2019 and 2021, this historical trend was reversed. This time frame captures the first two years of the pandemic, in which death rates peaked.

"For adults worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a more profound impact than any event seen in half a century, including conflicts and natural disasters," lead author Austin Schumacher, an acting assistant professor of health metric sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, said in a statement

In 2020 and 2021 combined, approximately 16 million people died either directly from COVID-19 or from the knock-on effects of the global outbreak, which included delays in seeking health care. This excess death toll reduced global life expectancy from 73.4 years in 2019 to below 71.8 years in 2021, with stark regional differences not reflected in these global averages.

The study presents updated mortality estimates from the 2021 Global Burden of Disease Study, which quantified global health trends across places and over time. In the work, researchers analyzed data from 204 countries and territories. Of these, only 32 showed an increase in life expectancy between 2019 and 2021. Those countries included Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Iceland, Ireland and Norway, which are all high-income countries.

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"Life expectancy declined in 84% of countries and territories during this pandemic, demonstrating the devastating potential impacts of novel pathogens," Schumacher said.

Among countries, Peru and Bolivia had some of the largest drops in life expectancy across all age groups from 2019 to 2021, according to the statement. In addition, Mexico City saw a particularly large drop compared with other subnational locations. 

When the researchers looked at age groups separately instead of lumping them all together, they found that the South African provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo had some of the highest excess mortality rates and largest life expectancy declines in the world. These provinces have relatively young populations whose data can skew the overall life expectancy averages, so parsing the data in this way can help reveal the true impact of COVID-19 on older groups, in particular.

A close up of painted hearts and messages on the National Covid Memorial Wall in central London (Image credit: SOPA Images / Contributor via Getty Images)

Accounting for the age distribution of the population in a given location also revealed high excess mortality rates in Jordan and Nicaragua, where the death toll had previously been concealed by grouping all age categories together, according to the statement. 

New Zealand, Barbados, and Antigua and Barbuda, on the other hand, had some of the lowest age-adjusted excess mortality rates from the pandemic, despite life expectancy declining between 2019 and 2021 in the two Caribbean countries.

According to the study authors' estimates, the pandemic caused global mortality to jump among all people over age 15, with a 22% increase in mortality for males and a 17% increase for females between 2019 and 2021. Child mortality, on the other hand, declined by 7% during the same period, with half a million fewer deaths among children under age 5 in 2021 compared with in 2019.

"Our study suggests that, even after taking stock of the terrible loss of lives the world experienced due to the pandemic, we have made incredible progress over 72 years since 1950, with child mortality continuing to drop globally," co-lead author Hmwe Kyu, an associate professor of health metric sciences at the University of Washington, said in the statement.

Although this global trend stayed on track, stark differences in child mortality rates persisted among regions. The highest rates were recorded in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, even after adjusting for mortality linked to the ongoing AIDS epidemic in these regions. 

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Sascha Pare
Trainee staff writer

Sascha is a U.K.-based trainee staff writer at Live Science. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Southampton in England and a master’s degree in science communication from Imperial College London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and the health website Zoe. Besides writing, she enjoys playing tennis, bread-making and browsing second-hand shops for hidden gems.