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Life expectancy bouncing back globally after COVID pandemic 

Life expectancy bouncing back globally after COVID pandemic
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Life expectancy in Europe has returned to the level it reached before the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, while the U.S. is still trying to regain lost ground. Overall, new numbers show life expectancy has increased in most parts of the world, with eastern sub-Saharan Africa showing the biggest gains over the past three decades.

European Union figures released this month show the average life expectancy across the bloc in 2023 was 81.5 years, representing almost a year's gain over 2022, as the coronavirus pandemic was coming to an end.

However, there are marked variations between European countries, noted Jennifer Beam Dowd, a professor of demography and population health and deputy director of the Leverhulme Center for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford.

“Within Europe, we're seeing really high life expectancy in countries like Spain and Italy, Sweden, Norway, but some countries are falling behind their peers and that includes the U.K.,” she said. “And then Eastern Europe has made a lot of progress since the post-Soviet mortality crisis of the 1990s, but they're still lagging behind a bit.

“In higher income countries, we've seen continued rapid drops in deaths due to cardiovascular disease that has probably made the biggest impact on those numbers over the last 30 years or so. The leaders right now really are some East Asian countries, especially Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan and South Korea, are doing really well,” Dowd told VOA.

A recent study published in the Lancet journal showed that globally, life expectancy increased by 6.2 years between 1990 and 2021, with eastern sub-Saharan Africa experiencing the largest increase of some 10.7 years. This is attributed to progress in tackling the major causes of death among children, such as diarrhea.

“I think that's really good news and reflects a lot of continued progress all over the world in falls and infectious disease and infant and child mortality, which makes a big difference to life expectancy because you're saving a lot of years of life if you save lives at young ages,” said Dowd.

Figures released in March showed average life expectancy in the United States in 2022, the most recent data available, was 77.5 years – still more than a year lower than life expectancy before the coronavirus pandemic, which began in 2020. U.S. life expectancy figures for 2023 have not yet been released.

The Lancet study estimated that almost 16 million deaths were caused by COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021, at the height of the pandemic.

The United States and Britain have struggled to regain lost ground compared to other developed countries, said Dowd.

“A lot of countries have bounced back close to pre-pandemic life expectancy, but some countries such as the U.S. have not returned yet to the levels they were at in 2019,” she said.

“Another thing that's having a big impact, we think right now, is the obesity epidemic, which started taking off, especially in the U.S., in the early 1980s. And in fact, we are seeing major slowdowns in improvements from cardiovascular disease that are driving a lot of the stalling life expectancy in high-income countries.”

“The U.S. was on the leading edge of that epidemic which also means that people reaching old age now in the U.S. have perhaps been suffering from obesity for many decades and that could be contributing to these trends in cardiovascular disease. But there's also differences across these countries in health care regimes that protect health, especially at older ages, and other social safety nets that we think are health-promoting,” Dowd added.

The European principality of Monaco, a favorite home for the super-rich, had the world’s highest life expectancy in 2023, at almost 90 years.