Society 07/04/2021

Spain is the EU country where life expectancy fell the most

The pandemic has caused Spaniards to lose 1.6 years of life expectancy, a fall not seen since the Civil War

3 min
Open Arms volunteers testing for the clinical trial at a nursing home, in a file image
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BarcelonaThe coronavirus has caused the death of more than 75,000 people in Spain and has also caused the rest of Spaniards to lose years of life expectancy. In 2019 life expectancy was 84 years, but after a year of pandemic and lockdown, the figure has fallen to 82.4. That is, due to the pandemic, Spaniards' life expectancy has fallen by 1.6 years. In fact, Spain has become the EU country which has registered the most significant decline in life expectancy, according to the EU statistics office, Eurostat.

"A decline in life expectancy of more than a year had not been seen since the Civil War," says Sergi Trias-Llimós, a researcher at the Centre for Demographic Studies. The data, however, have not surprised demographers, who had already predicted that the "stratospheric" overmortality recorded in the first wave (from March to May 2020) would have a devastating effect on the demographic level. The National Institute of Statistics had already published that more than a third of the 46,000 people who died during the first wave died in a nursing home or at home. In fact, one of the researchers' hypotheses is that the drop in life expectancy has been greater in Spain due to the "massacre" in nursing homes, where the virus wreaked havoc, according to Pau Miret, associate professor at the UOC's Faculty of Arts and Humanities and researcher at the Centre for Demographic Studies. If covid-19 had affected all age groups in the same way, Miret points out, life expectancy could have fallen by five years.

The sharp drop can also be explained, experts say, because Spain started with very high life expectancy. According to the World Health Organization, in 2016 Spain, with 83.1 years, was the third country with the highest life expectancy in the world, only behind Japan and Switzerland. Now the fall registered due to the pandemic brings Spain closer to the rest of the countries around it. Thus, the behaviour of the virus and the restrictions approved by the states have also influenced the estimate. "The first wave was contained in the north of Europe, while in the south and east it spread throughout the territory," say the researchers. This could explain, for example, the notable drops in life expectancy in Bulgaria (-1.5 years) and in Lithuania, Poland and Romania (-1.4 years), and also that Norway (+0.3) and Finland and Denmark (+0.1) are the only countries where life expectancy increased during the last year, while in Sweden, where a different approach was taken during the first wave, it has fallen by about a year (0.8). "The countries that took strict measures from the beginning have not been affected as much," Miret explains. It is unknown what has happened in the United Kingdom, which due to Brexit has been excluded from the statistics.

A temporary drop

The good news, say researchers, is that it seems that this drop is "cyclical" and that the data will rebound in the coming years. "It has to do with the covid situation, it is an accidental thing," explains Miret. "When covid-19 is over, life expectancy will recover quickly, but it remains to be seen when that will happen," confirms Trias-Llimós, who warns that the big factor will be vaccination. "If the vaccine is effective, life expectancy will rise again," Miret concludes. Eurostat makes it clear that the estimated values for life expectancy in 2020 would be consolidated only if the mortality conditions observed during this year, in the middle of the pandemic, continued in following years.

Broadly speaking, Eurostat also notes that life expectancy (the average number of years that a given population lives in a specific period of time) has been increasing in Spain and the EU in recent decades. Specifically, Europeans live two years longer on average every decade that has passed since 1960. This indicator, however, has stagnated or decreased with the impact of the covid-19 pandemic, and has affected men somewhat more than women