Global Life Expectancy Rises, but COVID-19 Pandemic Derails Progress

A new study published in The Lancet shows that people around the world are living longer than they did 30 years ago. The study found that, on average, life expectancy increased by 6.2 years between 1990 and 2021. This means that people born in 2021 can expect to live about 6 years longer than those born in 1990.

The researchers found that the increase in life expectancy was mainly due to fewer people dying from diseases like diarrhea, pneumonia, stroke, and heart disease. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it caused a setback in many parts of the world.

The study compared deaths from COVID-19 to deaths from other causes and found that COVID-19 became the second leading cause of death globally in 2020, after heart disease. This was the first time in 30 years that the top five causes of death had changed so dramatically.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, some regions of the world still saw significant increases in life expectancy between 1990 and 2021. Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Oceania had the largest increase of 8.3 years, thanks to reductions in deaths from lung diseases, stroke, pneumonia, and cancer. South Asia had the second-largest increase of 7.8 years, mainly due to a steep decline in deaths from diarrheal diseases.

“Our study presents a nuanced picture of the world’s health,” said Dr. Liane Ong, co-first author of the study and a Lead Research Scientist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). “On one hand, we see countries’ monumental achievements in preventing deaths from diarrhea and stroke. At the same time, we see how much the COVID-19 pandemic has set us back.”

The researchers found that the regions hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, Latin America and the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa, lost the most years of life expectancy in 2021.

Looking at different causes of death, the study found that deaths from diarrheal diseases and pneumonia decreased significantly between 1990 and 2021, adding 1.1 years and 0.9 years to global life expectancy, respectively. Progress in preventing deaths from stroke, heart disease, and cancer also helped increase life expectancy around the world.

At the regional level, Eastern sub-Saharan Africa had the largest increase in life expectancy of 10.7 years between 1990 and 2021, mainly due to better control of diarrheal diseases. East Asia had the second-largest increase, thanks to a reduction in deaths from lung diseases.

The study also found that some diseases are now concentrated in certain parts of the world. For example, in 2021, most deaths from diarrheal diseases occurred in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. For malaria, 90% of deaths occurred in an area where only 12% of the world’s population lives, ranging from Western sub-Saharan Africa through Central Africa to Mozambique.

“We already know how to save children from dying from enteric infections including diarrheal diseases, and progress in fighting this disease has been tremendous,” said Professor Mohsen Naghavi, the study’s co-first author and the Director of Subnational Burden of Disease Estimation at IHME. “Now, we need to focus on preventing and treating these diseases, strengthening and expanding immunization programs, and developing brand-new vaccines against E. coli, norovirus, and Shigella.”

The study also found that non-communicable diseases like diabetes and kidney diseases are increasing in every country. While high-income countries have made progress in reducing deaths from heart disease, stroke, and cancer, many low-income countries have not.

“The global community must ensure that the lifesaving tools that have cut deaths from ischemic heart disease, stroke, and other non-communicable diseases in most high-income countries are available to people in all countries, even where resources are limited,” said Eve Wool, senior author of the study and a Senior Research Manager at IHME.

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