Life expectancy in Europe drops during pandemic, as England and Spain hit hard

Drop of more than a year among men is higher than many European countries

Life expectancy fell by more than a year in parts of Europe during the first year of the pandemic, with especially sharp drops in England, Spain, Italy and Poland, according to a report.

But other areas of Europe got off relatively lightly, with projected lifespans even rising in Denmark and Norway, where virus deaths stayed fairly low.

The findings by a German research institute showed a man’s life expectancy in England and Wales fell by 13 months from 2019 to 2020, ending up at 79.

Women’s longevity fell slightly less, by 11 months, dropping to 82.

In a normal year, life expectancy typically inches up by about a month, said Germany’s Federal Institute for Population Research.

A steep decline is rare in developed countries and tends to be triggered by disasters such as wars and disease outbreaks. A report by a parliamentary committee this week laid bare failings in the UK response to Covid-19.

“Covid-19 definitely isn’t the only thing that affects life expectancy,” said Dr Pavel Grigoriev, the head of a research group on mortality.

“But detailed death statistics show that Covid-19 had a considerable influence on life expectancy in many countries in 2020.”

Italy, Poland and Spain were particularly affected, with predicted lifespans falling by more than a year among men and women.

Outside Europe, there was a particularly stark drop in the US, where men’s life expectancy dropped by more than two years to 75.

“These are very unusual figures for a highly developed country,” said Dr Grigoriev. “They show how dangerous the coronavirus can be if few measures are taken to stop it spreading.”

By contrast, the effect in Germany was comparatively mild, after cases and deaths stayed fairly low, especially during the first wave of the pandemic.

Life expectancy dropped by two months for women, and three months for men, ending up at 83 and 79 respectively.

Some parts of north Germany, along with Norway and Denmark, actually saw life expectancy increase in 2020. Lockdown-sceptic Sweden was an exception.

“In northern Europe, only Sweden saw larger drops in life expectancy,” said Dr Sebastian Kluesener, the institute’s research director.

“Sweden did take fewer preventive measures in comparison to the other countries in northern Europe.”

Groups of people sit in a park at Tantolunden in Stockholm, Sweden, on Friday, May 22, 2020. Sweden, which has refused to close down schools and restaurants to contain the new coronavirus, is being closely watched as many other countries are gradually opening up their economies from stricter lockdowns. Photographer: Loulou D'Aki/Bloomberg

Lifespans generally dropped more sharply among men – reflecting other findings that men have been more affected by Covid-19, possibly because of riskier behaviour and weaker immune systems.

Spain was an exception to this. Women’s life expectancy dropped by about 18 months, more than among men.

In parts of England, life expectancy may have started falling even before the pandemic, according to separate research also published on Tuesday.

The places with the shortest lifespans were towns and cities in the north of England, where many areas are socially deprived.

“Declines in life expectancy used to be rare in wealthy countries like the UK, and happened when there were major adversities like wars and pandemics,” said Prof Majid Ezzati, a lead author of the study.

“For such declines to be seen in ‘normal times’ before the pandemic is alarming, and signals ongoing policy failures to tackle poverty and provide adequate social support and health care.”

Updated: October 13th 2021, 12:40 PM