Only Norway and Denmark avoided increased mortality during the pandemic
The Covid-19 crisis led to a reduction in life expectancy that rich countries have not experienced since the war.
A new study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour now shows how high vaccine rates in countries such as Norway contributed to fewer deaths during the pandemic.
Low vaccination rates led to far more deaths.
Only Norway and Denmark
An international research group has compared figures for life expectancy in 26 European countries along with the USA and Chile.
Comparing life expectancy is a bit complicated. Simply put, it involves comparing the life expectancy of all newborn children in a population. Period life expectancy (LE) is the measure of life expectancy that researchers have used in this study.
With this measure, life expectancy fell during the pandemic year 2020, in as many as 26 of the 28 countries that the researchers looked at.
Only in Norway and Denmark did life expectancy increase in 2020, as it has done in almost every year since WWII.
Finland almost managed the same.
The average decrease in life expectancy in the 28 countries was nine months.
At the start of 2021, the Covid vaccines arrived.
In 2021, several Western European countries then experienced that life expectancy increased again.
But in Eastern European countries with low vaccine rates, 2021 was an even worse year for public health and average life expectancy than 2020, according to this study.
The same was probably the case in Russia, although there is little data.
In the US, the LE declined by a whole two years in 2020. It declined by a further three months in 2021.
Life expectancy and mortality
- Life expectancy reflects the mortality rate in a population.
- It also provides an important indication of the state of public health in the country.
- Life expectancy in a single year, for example the year 2022, shows how long we expect the children born this year to live. But since the calculation assumes that the mortality rate in the future will be exactly the same as in 2022, this is only an estimate.
- Nevertheless, such calculations are useful for comparing different years and different countries.
- Average life expectancy in Norway is now almost 84 years.
(Source: Norwegian Institute of Public Health)
Life expectancy followed vaccination
According to the study, researchers could clearly see the connection between vaccination against the coronavirus – and developments in health and life expectancy.
The highest proportion of vaccinations in the population was in Western Europe. It was lowest in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe.
Bulgaria is the country with the lowest vaccination rate and the greatest reduction in life expectancy during the pandemic.
We know little about the situation in Russia.
Age and gender
This pattern becomes even clearer when the researchers also consider age groups.
In several countries with high corona mortality, early vaccination of a high proportion of the population over 80 years of age worked well. Following the vaccinations, the expected life expectancy (LE) for this age group went almost completely back to normal in heavily corona-affected countries such as the USA and the Netherlands.
The same did not happen in younger adult age groups, where a smaller proportion allowed themselves to be vaccinated.
In a country like the USA, the gender gap in life expectancy (LE) also increased by almost a full year in 2021.
2020 was the worst year since WWII
The researchers have compared changes in life expectancy all the way back to the year 1900.
They saw that the years between 1900 and 1945 were characterised by several mortality shocks.
The most serious were the Spanish flu in 1917 and 1918, and then another serious flu in 1929. The Second World War (1939-1945) also reduced life expectancy in several countries.
But in the last 70 years or so, researchers have not found any years with similar mortality shocks.
That is, before we entered the pandemic year of 2020.
In the USA and in several Eastern European countries, 2021 was also a year of major health challenges due to the virus. Low vaccination rates apparently contributed to this.
Translated by Alette Bjordal Gjellesvik.
Read the Norwegian version of this article on forskning.no
Schöley et al. Life expectancy changes since COVID-19, Nature human Behaviour, 2022. DOI: 10.1038/s41562-022-01450-3
The Economist: ‘In America and eastern Europe, covid-19 got worse in 2021’, 20 October 2022.