September 30, 2021 | Press Release

COVID-19: Period Life Expectancy Drops Significantly due to Pandemic

© iStockphoto.com/D-Keine

MPIDR-Researcher Jonas Schöley and an international team of demographers calculated that period life expectancy in European countries and the United States dropped by several months or even years in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Men in the U.S. lost the most, an average of 2.2 years. In Germany, by contrast, period life expectancy for both men and women has fallen by only a few months.

In Europe, average life expectancy has consistently been increasing every year by a few weeks or a few months for decades. The Covid-19 pandemic has halted this development; from 2019 to 2020 period life expectancy fell in 27 of the 29 countries studied in Europe and the Americas.

Men in the United States and Lithuania had the greatest decrease in life expectancy. Their period life expectancy fell by 2.2 and 1.7 years, respectively. Overall, for men, period life expectancy fell by more than one year in 11 of the 27 countries studied. For women, it fell by more than one year in 8 countries. “These figures underscore the historic scale of the pandemic,” says Jonas Schöley, a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock, Germany. 

In Germany, period life expectancy fell by just under three and a half months

Denmark and Norway were the only countries studied where the period life expectancy of men and women did not fall. There, the numbers of Covid-19 deaths were low by international standards. At the same time, mortality from other causes of death continued to decline, so the period life expectancy actually increased slightly in Denmark and Norway in 2020.

Germany has also seen a decline in other causes of death, though it is lower than in Denmark and Norway and  the number of Covid-19 deaths is higher. As a result, period life expectancy in Germany in 2020 fell by just over four months for men and two and a half months for women.

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In most countries, period life expectancy wiped out gains in life expectancy seen in the five years before the pandemic. “In many Western European countries, such as Spain, England, Italy, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Sweden, losses of this magnitude haven’t been seen since World War II,” says Jonas Schöley.

Together with colleagues at the University of Oxford and the University of Southern Denmark, Schöley calculated the period life expectancy for the year 2020, based on the timely published publication of weekly death counts in numerous countries. Schöley and the team used datasets compiled by MPIDR researchers in the STMF database and the COVerAGE database. The team published their study in the International Journal of Epidemiology. 

Period life expectancy says nothing about lifespan of 2020 births 

Period life expectancy reflects the risk of death a population faced within a year. If the risk of dying in a year increases, such as from a heat wave or from COVID-19 infection, life expectancy decreases; if the risk of dying decreases, life expectancy increases.

“Period life expectancy is particularly suitable as a comparative measure in the pandemic,” says Jonas Schöley. “This is because it is not influenced by the age composition and size of the population,” he adds. “What is decisive during the pandemic, on the other hand, is the infection rate and the overall state of the health care system.”Although it’s called life expectancy, from the data you can not infer the influence of the pandemic on the average life span of children born in 2020,” says Jonas Schöley.

Original Publication

Aburto, J.M., Schöley, J., Kashnitsky, I., Zhang, L., Rahal, C., Missov, T.I., Mills, M.C., Dowd, J.B., Kashyap, R.: Quantifying impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic through life expectancy losses: a population-level study of 29 countries. International Journal of Epidemiology (2021). DOI: 10.1093/ije/dyab207

The study is reproducible, data and code can be downloaded here: github.com/OxfordDemSci/ex2020

Authors and Affiliations

José Manuel Aburto, Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science and Department of Sociology, University of Oxford, Nuffield College, University of Oxford, Interdisciplinary Centre on Population Dynamics, University of Southern Denmark

Jonas Schöley, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Interdisciplinary Centre on Population Dynamics, University of Southern Denmark

Ilya Kashnitsky, Interdisciplinary Centre on Population Dynamics, University of Southern Denmark

Luyin Zhang, Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science and Department of Sociology, University of Oxford

Charles Rahal, Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science and Department of Sociology, University of Oxford, Nuffield College, University of Oxford

Trifon I. Missov, Interdisciplinary Centre on Population Dynamics, University of Southern Denmark

Melinda C. Mills, Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science and Department of Sociology, University of Oxford

Jennifer B. Dowd, Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science and Department of Sociology, University of Oxford

Ridhi Kashyap, Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science and Department of Sociology, University of Oxford

MPIDR-Author of the Paper

The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.