How has COVID-19 impacted Australia’s life expectancy?

Australia reported 7,802 COVID-19 deaths in the first eight months in 2022, three-and-a-half times more COVID-19 deaths than 2020 and 2021 combined. According to the Actuaries Institute, 14% increase in excess deaths from all causes in 2022 this is a significant increase on pre pandemic levels.

An older couple at Lake Wendouree, Ballarat, Australia William Caram / Alamy Stock PhotoIn the first year of the pandemic, Australia’s life expectancy (the average number of years a person can be expected to live from birth) actually rose by more than 0.5 years the largest increase in three decades. In addition to reducing the rapid spread of COVID-19, lockdowns also reduced circulation of infectious diseases resulted in much fewer deaths from influenza and pneumonia, particularly among the elderly.

Analysis of the latest available data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that life expectancy has fallen by 0.6 years for females and 0.7 years for males in 2022, the largest such declines in decades. Deaths directly due to COVID-19 have contributed close to three-quarters of these declines. The decline in life expectancy has been greatest in older populations, not only due to COVID-19 but also from other conditions such as dementia for which infectious respiratory diseases are a common immediate cause. These declines in life expectancy seem relatively small given that there is excess mortality of 14% this year, however as a disproportionate number of these additional deaths are occurring at older ages, there is less impact on life expectancy compared with deaths at younger ages.

Despite the relatively high mortality this year, Australia’s life expectancy trends during the pandemic have been more favourable than almost all other comparable countries. Life expectancy in several high-income countries in Europe and North America fell by over 1 year in 2020, and in the US fell by more than 2 years. Some Western European countries with relatively strong uptake of vaccinations recovered some, but not all, of these declines in 2021.

The current level of mortality in Australia is a concern and reinforces the benefits of adherence to public health messages. Looking ahead, the near-term trajectory of life expectancy in Australia will depend on the spread of new COVID variants, ongoing vaccination coverage and the impact of Long COVID.

Dr Tim Adair is a demographer and Principal Research Fellow in the Nossal Institute for Global Health. His primary interest is working with Governments of low-to-middle income countries to strengthen their civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) systems and improve the quality of health data available to policymakers

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Dr Tim Adair