More than 28 million more years of life were lost than expected in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with Russia and the United States seeing the largest drops in average life expectancy, according to a recent study published in BMJ.
For the study, researchers from Oxford University conducted a time series analysis of annual life expectancy data on all-cause mortality in 37 upper-middle and high-income countries. The researchers also looked at years of life lost, a metric developed by comparing the ages of people who died to their life expectancies.
The researchers found drops in life expectancy for both men and women in every country studied except for New Zealand, Norway, and Taiwan, where life expectancy increased. There was no significant change in life expectancy observed in Denmark, Iceland, and South Korea.
Meanwhile, Russia, the United States, and Bulgaria saw the largest drops in life expectancy in 2020.
In total, the researchers found that more than 222 million years of life were lost in 2020, which was 28.1 million more years of life lost than expected. Russia, the United States, Bulgaria, and Lithuania and saw the largest numbers of excess years of life lost per 100,000 population, the study found.
Generally, the researchers found that excess years of life lost was relatively low among people younger than 65. But in the four countries listed above, excess years of life lost among those younger than 65 was greater than 2,000 per 100,000.
Excess years of life lost in 2020 was more than five times as high as years of life lost in 2015 during the seasonal influenza epidemic, the researchers found.
The researchers noted that their study was not able to determine whether excess deaths were directly caused by the coronavirus or were related to other causes.
According to the researchers, the study results "strongly justify a more nuanced estimation of the lives lost[.]"
They added that the comparable or lower-than-expected years of life lost in Taiwan, New Zealand, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and South Korea "underscore[s] the importance of successful viral suppression and elimination policies, including targeted and population based public health policy interventions."
Nazrul Islam, a researcher at Oxford and lead author on the study, said the life expectancy drop in the United States was largely driven by the deaths of young people.
In the United States, "we have lost a huge amount of people at a young age," Islam said. "That's really, really sobering."
The study's results show "the U.S. did a poor job protecting younger individuals or they were more susceptible compared to other countries," said Theresa Andrasfay, a postdoctoral researcher of gerontology at the University of Southern California (USC). She clarified the results could mean either that the United States was worse at protecting essential workers than the rest of the world or that more working-age people had other conditions putting them at higher risk for severe Covid-19.
According to Bryan Tysinger, a research assistant professor in health policy at USC, who was not involved in the study, Covid-19 wasn't the only factor contributing to the loss in life expectancy, as homicides and drug overdoses increased in 2020 as well.
"It continues to be striking how poorly the U.S. has handled the Covid pandemic," Tysinger said. "The U.S. should not be leading or nearly leading excess deaths in a pandemic like this."
"Life expectancy in 2020 was comparable to life expectancy, in men, back in 2002," Islam said. "Everything we have achieved over the last 19 years was sort of lost." (Gleeson, Becker's Hospital Review, 11/4; Islam et al., BMJ, 11/3; Bush, NBC News, 11/3)