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COVID-19 pandemic has led to great life expectancy losses in Europe and overseas but not in Denmark

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered life expectancy losses not seen since World War II in Western Europe and exceeded those observed around the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc in central and Eastern European countries. Nordic Europe, with the exception of Sweden, have seen less dramatic impact of COVID-19 however. A new comparative study by our researchers and co-authors from Oxford University documents the unprecedented life expectancy change by sex and broad age groups published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

By Jana Vobecká, 10/1/2021

COVID-19 took a toll on human lives last year, but with different intensity across countries. Denmark is one of the few counties where mortality levels were very little affected and life expectancy did not decrease (Figure 1). Data from most of the 29 countries – spanning most of Europe, the US and Chile – that were analysed by scientists recorded reductions in life expectancy last year and at a scale that has wiped out years of progress. The biggest declines in life expectancy were among males in the US, with a decline of 2.2 years relative to 2019 levels, followed by Lithuanian males (1.7 years).


Annual changes in life expectancy 1970 to 2020
Figure 1. Annual changes in life expectancy 1970 to 2020.
Source: @jschoeley.


José Manuel Aburto, a co-lead author of the study and researcher at the University of Southern Denmark said: “For western European countries such as Spain, England and Wales, Italy, Belgium, among others, the last time such large magnitudes of declines in life expectancy at birth were observed in a single year was during the second world war.” The scale of the life expectancy losses was stark across most countries studied: “22 countries included in our study experienced larger losses than half a year in 2020. Females in eight countries and males in 11 countries experienced losses larger than a year. To contextualize, it took on average 5.6 years for these countries to achieve a one-year increase in life expectancy recently: progress wiped out over the course of 2020 by COVID-19,” says Aburto.

Males saw larger life expectancy declines than females. In the US, increases in mortality in the under 60 age group contributed most significantly to life expectancy declines, whereas across most of Europe increases in mortality above age 60 contributed more significantly.

Denmark and Norway were the only two countries out the 29 under study, that have recorded increase in life expectancy for both males and females in 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemics (Figure 2). This does not mean that lives were not lost due to COVID-19 in these Nordic countries. But the loses were relatively low and moreover, the increase in mortality due to COVID-19 was offset by mortality reductions among other causes. Early non-pharmaceutical interventions coupled with a strong health care system may help to explain why these two countries managed to avoid drops in life expectancy.


Contributions (in years) to changes in life expectancy at birth from 2019 to 2020 attributable to official COVID-19 deaths and remaining causes of death.

Figure 2. Contributions (in years) to changes in life expectancy at birth from 2019 to 2020 attributable to official COVID-19 deaths and remaining causes of death.
Note: Countries are sorted from largest to smallest losses. The sum of both components adds to the total change from 2019 to 2020 in a given country.
Source: Aburto et al. (2021)


The research was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology and is a result of collaboration between the researchers of the Interdiscipliary Centre on Population Dynamics (CPop) at the University of Southern Denmark and the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science (LCDS) at the University of Oxford. It was published with support from The ROCKWOOL Foundation.

Read the full paper here.


Good to know about life expectancy

Life expectancy, also known as period life expectancy, is a snapshot of current mortality conditions. It refers to the average age to which a newborn live if current death rates continued for their whole life. It does not predict an actual lifespan. It allows for a comparison of the size of the mortality impacts of the pandemic between different countries and populations.


Citation of the original paper

José Manuel Aburto, Jonas Schöley, Ilya Kashnitsky, Luyin Zhang, Charles Rahal, Trifon I Missov, Melinda C Mills, Jennifer B Dowd, Ridhi Kashyap. 2021. ‘Quantifying impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic through life-expectancy losses: a population-level study of 29 countries.’ International Journal of Epidemiology.

Editing was completed: 01.10.2021