BACK

What do we know about COVID-19 reducing life expectancy?

Update

Life expectancy is the estimated number of years that a person can expect to live based on their current age in a specific place. Life expectancy is often measured in two ways. The first way is called Period Life Expectancy and it is calculated by measuring how frequently people died in a specific group in a specific time and then multiplied to represent an entire population. The second way life expectancy can be measured is through using a Cohort Life Expectancy approach and this is measured by calculating mortality risks throughout the lifetimes of a group of individuals born during the same period of time. Because of advances in medical treatment, before 2020, period life expectancy was increasing in many parts of the world. As a result of deaths that have happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, many experts have said that period life expectancy values will decrease, at least temporarily. While period life expectancy is commonly used to report on population health, it is a projection that cannot account for any future changes in mortality (or death), unlike cohort life expectancy. The period life expectancy measure assumes that the number of people in any age group who die in one year will be the same the following year and so on. For example, many people died from COVID-19 in 2020, but with vaccines and other improved methods of prevention and treatment, the number of deaths may be less in 2021. If this is true, the period life expectancy would likely increase again. On February 25, 2020, the U.S. CDC reported that the period life expectancy in the United States fell by a full year in the first six months of 2020 -- from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.8 years. This period life expectancy reflects the average life expectancy for an infant born in 2020. The value does not mean that everyone who is alive now will die one year earlier. Changes in period life expectancy were reported between males and females. In 2019, female period life expectancy was 5.1 years higher than for males (76.3). In 2020, female period life expectancy was 5.4 years higher than for males (75.1 years for males and 80.5 years for females). Differences in life expectancy were also reported based on  race and ethnicity. Life expectancy decreased most for Black individuals, then Latino individuals, then white individuals. As a result of these differences in decreases, the Latino population had a lower period life expectancy advantage compared to the white population by about a year as of the first half of 2020. The white period life expectancy advantage compared to the black population increased by nearly two years to a 6 year difference overall. This is the widest period life expectancy has been between Black individuals and white individuals in the population since 1998. The CDC life expectancy estimates were specifically based on information for the first half of 2020. When remeasured in 2021, life expectancy as well as cohort life expectancy are likely to decrease alongside decreases in COVID-19 deaths and increases in COVID-19 vaccinations. 

This article was published on
March 10, 2021

This explainer is more than 90 days old. Some of the information might be out of date or no longer relevant. Browse our homepage for up to date content or request information about a specific topic from our team of scientists.

Publication

What our experts say

Life expectancy is the estimated number of years that a person can expect to live, based on their current age in a specific place. Life expectancy is often measured in two ways. The first way is called Period Life Expectancy and it is calculated by measuring how frequently people died in a specific group during a specific time, and then multiplying that count to represent an entire population.

The second way life expectancy can be measured is through using a Cohort Life Expectancy approach and this is measured by calculating life expectancy throughout the lifetimes of a group of individuals born during the same period of time.

On February 25, 2020, the U.S. CDC reported that the period life expectancy in the United States fell by a full year in the first six months of 2020—from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.8 years. This period life expectancy reflects the average life expectancy for an infant born in 2020. The value does not mean that everyone who is alive now will die one year earlier.

Some members of the public interpreted the report’s findings as a decrease in their personal life expectancy, when in reality it is a measure used to report statistical averages. This misinterpretation is likely due both in part to the fact that period life expectancy is a difficult measure to interpret, and that the CDC report does not consistently use the term “period life expectancy” throughout their report, which has led to misinterpretations of the data in the media and to critique by the scientific community.

The report found that changes in period life expectancy were different for different genders. In 2019, female period life expectancy was 5.1 years higher than for males (76.3). In 2020, female period life expectancy was 5.4 years higher than for males (75.1 years for males and 80.5 years for females).

Differences in life expectancy were also reported based on race and ethnicity. Life expectancy decreased most for Black individuals and least for white individuals. Latino individuals sat in between. During 2020 differences between period life expectancy for Black individuals and white individuals was the widest it's been since 1998.

The CDC life expectancy estimates were specifically based on information for the first half of 2020. When remeasured in 2021, life expectancy as well as cohort life expectancy are likely to decrease alongside decreases in COVID-19 deaths and increases in COVID-19 vaccinations.

Context and background

Because of advances in medical treatment like vaccines and early cancer diagnosis tools, before 2020, period life expectancy was increasing in many parts of the world.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report on February 25, 2021 that showed a life expectancy decrease in the U.S. for January 2020 through June 2020—essentially, taking into account the first 1-2 waves of COVID-19 in the U.S..

While period life expectancy is commonly used to discuss an entire population’s health, it is an estimate that can’t predict any future changes in the numbers of deaths that may occur (also called ‘mortality’), unlike cohort life expectancy. The period life expectancy measure assumes that the number of people in any age group who die in one year will be the same the following year and so on. For example, many people died from COVID-19 in 2020, but with vaccines and other improved methods of prevention and treatment, the number of deaths may be fewer in 2021. If this is true, the period life expectancy would likely increase again.

Resources

  1. Provisional Life Expectancy Estimates for January through June, 2020 (CDC)
  2. Reductions in 2020 US life expectancy due to COVID-19 and the disproportionate impact on the Black and Latino populations (PNAS)
  3. Period and cohort life expectancy explained: December 2019 (UK Office for National Statistics)
  4. A Grim Measure of Covid’s Toll: Life Expectancy Drops Sharply in U.S. (NYTimes)
  5. U.S. Life Expectancy Sees Biggest Drop in Decades After COVID-19 Pandemic (Healthline)
  6. CDC estimated a one-year decline in life expectancy in 2020. Not so — try five days (STAT)

Media briefing

Media Release

Expert Comments: 

No items found.

Q&A

No items found.