Following a global decline in life expectancy in 2020, seven countries in Western Europe saw an incomplete but significant increase in 2021, while in the United States, Chile and most of Eastern Europe the decline continued, according to a paper published in Nature Human Behaviour. These diverging trends, based on data from 29 countries, illustrate how some countries’ populations were more severely affected by the pandemic than others in 2021.
Life expectancy is a useful indicator of overall population health, and is often used to compare population health between countries. Changes in life expectancy in 2021 may indicate the effects of non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccination uptake, which have differed between countries.
Jonas Schöley and colleagues used data on deaths from 29 countries between 2015 and 2021 to estimate changes in life expectancy. They find that in four of the countries assessed (France, Belgium, Switzerland and Sweden), life expectancy returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2021. Life expectancy in other Western European countries bounced back partially in 2021, but several countries — including the US, Chile and countries in Eastern Europe (except Slovenia, which saw an incomplete increase in life expectancy) — continued to see a fall in life expectancy. The authors analysed mortality by age group and found that deaths from COVID-19 across countries tended to occur in younger age groups (under the age of 60) in 2021 than in 2020. The authors also analysed the proportion of the population that was fully vaccinated as of October 2021 and found that reduced life expectancy was associated with lower vaccination uptake.
The authors conclude that given that several countries have seen continued declines in life expectancy that are unprecedented over the past 70 years, there remains the possibility that some countries will experience a longer-term health crisis.