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Global Health
January 18, 2022

COVID-19 Cuts Life Expectancy in Dozens of Countries

JAMA. 2022;327(3):209. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.24595

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have halted a more than decade-long increase in life expectancy, according to global mortality data that showed decreases in 2020 in 31 out of 37 high-income countries.

Russia, the US, and Bulgaria had the largest declines in life expectancy when the authors compared real 2020 mortality data with estimated 2020 life expectancy based on 2005-2019 trends. Men experienced the greatest losses with a 2.33-year reduction in Russia, a 2.27-year drop in the US, and a 1.96-year decrease in Bulgaria. Russian women experienced a 2.14-year decline in life expectancy, while US women lost about a year and a half and Bulgarian women lost about a year and one-third.

The exceptions were New Zealand, Taiwan, and Norway, where data suggested that life expectancy increased slightly during the pandemic. The authors found no change in life expectancy in Denmark, Iceland, and South Korea.

Across the 31 countries with decreased life expectancy, 28 million more years of life were lost in 2020 than expected—a figure 5 times greater than the excess years of life lost during the 2015 seasonal influenza pandemic. The US and Lithuania had the most excess deaths among people younger than 65 years, with about 60% of those deaths occurring among men.

Lower baseline health status in some countries may explain the larger lost years of life, the authors suggested. For example, a previous study found that racial and ethnic health disparities contributed to larger decreases in US life expectancy, especially among Black and Hispanic people.