According to an analysis led by Rostock scientists, life expectancy has developed very differently in the European countries during the corona pandemic.
While it was 43 months lower in Bulgaria at the end of 2021 than in 2019, it rose by 1.7 months in Norway. With a life expectancy that was 5.7 months lower, Germany was in the upper midfield, as reported by the group led by Jonas Schöley from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research.
"The periodic life expectancy is a summary measure of the current state of health of the population; if mortality in a population increases, life expectancy falls," the scientists explain in the journal "Nature Human Behaviour".
They examined the development in 29 countries in the years 2015 to 2021, with a special focus on the two pandemic years. In addition to many European countries, Schöley and colleagues also included the USA and Chile.
Eastern Europe and the USA particularly affected
Belgium, France, Sweden and Switzerland were able to largely compensate for the drop in life expectancy in 2020 by increasing life expectancy in the following year. Italy and Spain also showed a significant increase in life expectancy in 2021, but both lost 7.4 months in the sum of the pandemic years.
Eastern European countries in particular, with the exception of Slovenia, had to record a reduction in life expectancy in both years of the pandemic, for example in Slovakia by 33.1 months. This also applies to Germany, but to a much lesser extent (5.7 months). Life expectancy in the US fell by 28.2 months in 2020 and 2021.
While in 2020 it was mainly people aged 60 or more who died, in 2021 the death rate among under-60s increased. The authors of the study attribute this, among other things, to the better vaccination status of the older population in the second year of the pandemic. Overall, they found a clear connection to vaccinations: the lower the proportion of fully vaccinated people in a population, the more life expectancy fell.
In most countries, the difference between the life expectancies of women and men has also widened, especially in the USA: Before the pandemic, women had a life expectancy that was 5.72 years higher than men; in 2021 it was now 6.69 years.
In Denmark, Finland and Norway, life expectancy changed only slightly during the pandemic. "Here we can see the combination of campaigns that delivered vaccines to more people faster than the European Union average, with effective non-pharmaceutical public health interventions and high baseline health system capacities." In the United States, on the other hand, a trend that was already apparent before the pandemic began: a decrease in life expectancy at working age. Obesity and diseases such as diabetes could be one of the reasons for this.
Through statistical analysis, the researchers determined that the decline in life expectancy was largely due to Covid-19 as the cause of death. An exception is the Netherlands, where 51.7 percent of the reduction in life expectancy in 2021 was due to causes other than Covid-19.
The scientists assume that the periodic life expectancy in countries other than those examined could have declined even more. "In 2020, life expectancy losses suffered in Brazil and Mexico exceeded losses suffered in the US, so it is likely that in 2021 these countries continued to suffer the impact of mortality - possibly even exceeding what we have for Bulgaria an estimated 43 months," explains José Manuel Aburto from the University of Oxford (UK), one of the co-authors of the study.
Corona has a similar effect as other historical events
Schöley's team compared the decline in life expectancy with other events over the past 120 years. Accordingly, only the two world wars and the Spanish flu in 1918 caused a greater loss in life expectancy in Europe. "The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a global increase in mortality and a decline in periodic life expectancy unprecedented in the last 70 years," the scientists write.