With advancing living standards and medical breakthroughs par for the course in the modern world, it’s startling to find that life expectancies recently have been falling in many advanced nations.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic tragically has cut millions of lives short, which helps explain some of the trend, especially in 2020. But it is important to note that life expectancies were shortening before the pandemic in many developed countries.
Factors that have pushed down lifespans in recent years include:
- Severe outbreaks of flu and pneumonia
- The opioid epidemic in the U.S.
- An aging population in many countries, with deaths resulting from respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease
Thanks to the pandemic, 2020 was an especially tough year in many developed countries. Using statistics from Eurostat — the statistical office of the European Union — and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, here is a sampling of developed countries where life expectancies declined by at least one year in 2020.
Life expectancy decline: 1 year
In the fall of 2020, Slovenia saw a sudden doubling of COVID-19 infections. The nation responded by declaring a 30-day state of emergency, including banning some travel, introducing a curfew, prohibiting public and religious events, and restricting the number of people allowed to gather to just six.
By early 2021, citizens were growing restless. The government relented, reopening ski resorts and some shops, and allowing more travel.
The Czech Republic also recorded a one-year decline in life expectancy in 2020, Eurostat says.
Life expectancy decline: 1.2 years
By October 2020, COVID-19 had arrived in full force in Belgium, home to the headquarters of both the European Union and NATO. During that month, the country had the highest rate of coronavirus infections per 100,000 citizens in the EU.
Lockdowns followed. But by the beginning of this year, Belgium had the second-highest rate of COVID-19 deaths in the world in proportion to its overall population, behind only the tiny city-state of San Marino.
Italy also recorded a 1.2-year drop in life expectancy during 2020.
Life expectancy decline: 1.4 years
As 2020 drew to a close, Poland struggled mightily to contain the spread of COVID-19. Cases reached a peak of 27,000 a day in November.
By the end of last year, the situation was bad enough that the nation entered a national quarantine from Dec. 28 to Jan. 17 of this year. Hotels, ski slopes and shopping malls all closed down.
Lithuania and Romania also recorded a 1.4-year drop in life expectancy during 2020.
Life expectancy decline: 1.5 years
The coronavirus took a deep toll on life expectancy in the U.S., with a drop of 1.5 years in 2020.
For the total population, life expectancy at birth declined from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.3 years in 2020. That brought American life expectancy to its lowest level since 2003, the CDC says.
Bulgaria also recorded a 1.5-year drop in life expectancy last year.
Life expectancy decline: 1.6 years
COVID-19 hit Spain hard in 2020, resulting in a mortality rate that reached its highest level since such statistics first were compiled in the 1970s.
The number of births also fell sharply to a record low, and weddings plunged by almost half compared with 2019.
Life expectancy decline: 2.4 years
During the pandemic, this small country — with a population of less than 40,000, located between Austria and Switzerland — has had one of the higher confirmed per-capita death rates in the world.
In an echo of what was happening in the U.S. and many other countries at the time, late 2020 saw cases surging in Liechtenstein, with hospitals and health care workers under pressure.