NZ's new average life expectancy – and the surprising Covid twist

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 10 Apr 2022, 2:23pm
(Photo / 123RF)
(Photo / 123RF)

NZ's new average life expectancy – and the surprising Covid twist

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 10 Apr 2022, 2:23pm

New Zealand's average life expectancy dropped in 2021 but is still higher than it was pre-pandemic, new research has shown. 

While life expectancy for the average Kiwi dropped slightly between 2020 and 2021, we are one of only three countries to have seen an increase since 2019. 

Research yet to be peer-reviewed from Virginia Commonwealth University and University of Colorado studied the life expectancy of the United States and 19 peer nations from 2019 to 2021. 

The peer nations were mostly European, with the addition of New Zealand, South Korea and Israel. 

The average New Zealander was expected to live to be 81.99 in 2021, a drop of 0.37 years from 82.36 in 2020. 

However, this was still higher than New Zealand's 2019 life expectancy of 81.65. 

Along with Norway and South Korea, New Zealand was one of only three countries to gain life expectancy since 2019. 

New Zealand's life expectancy dropped last year following an increase in 2020, new research has shown. Photo / 123rf 

Otago University Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said the findings were consistent with other data about the pandemic experience in different countries. 

"What we've seen, and it's not at all surprising, is that ... if you look at New Zealand in 2021 and compare that with the baseline of 2019, we're still ahead by 0.34 of a year. 

"We have a big jump going from 2019 to 2020, and then we drop back slightly but we're still ahead of where we were." 

On top of this, New Zealand had gone from being below the peer average for life expectancy in 2019, to above it in 2020 and 2021. 

"All up over the first two years of the pandemic, NZ has gained life expectancy in both years and it's moved up its position relative in this position of other countries. 

"So, it's a very positive result for New Zealand and consistent with all the other measures we've got." 

Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker. Photo / Supplied 

Another measure that could compare pandemic experiences was excess mortality, Baker said. 

An excess mortality analysis from the Economist found New Zealand to have sustained the lowest excess mortality in the world for the period January 1 2020 to April 9 2022. 

Baker said its estimated mortality range suggests New Zealand saved around 2244 lives during this time, compared with what would have been expected pre-pandemic. This could perhaps challenge our expectations of winter illness, he said. 

"One of the big lessons from this is that the big burden of excess deaths in the middle of the year isn't necessary," he said. 

He said the findings of the life expectancy research were reassuring, in spite of the slight decrease last year. 

"The findings here are very reassuring that during the first two years of the pandemic life expectancy increased, although that difference was not as marked in 2021 and there could be a number of factors contributing to that. 

"If you look at the excess mortality calculation, New Zealand got huge benefits in 2020 from tight management of the pandemic. 

"There were very few deaths year one from Covid-19 and we also saved more than 2000 lives from people not dying from excess winter infections. 

"In 2021 the controls were not as tight, we had more respiratory viruses circulating and we saw less decline in winter mortality, that's the big difference." 

Considering New Zealand had recorded just over 50 deaths from coronavirus until the beginning of this year, Baker said we had not yet seen the impacts of Covid fatalities on life expectancy. 

Tight pandemic controls had contributed to the increase in life expectancy, Baker said. Photo / NZME 

While most countries saw a decline in life expectancy in 2020, only three countries – the United States, New Zealand and Israel – suffered a loss in 2021. 

On average, life expectancy had decreased since 2019 across the countries studied. 

The average life expectancy of the peer countries (not including the United States) was 81.86 in 2021, an increase from 81.58 in 2020, but lower than the 2019 life expectancy of 82.15. 

However, the United States had seen a steady decline each year, from 78.86 in 2019, to 76.99 in 2020, to 76.60 in 2021 – which was the lowest life expectancy of countries in the study. 

The researchers said the decrease in life expectancy of 2.26 years was the biggest decline the United States had seen since 1943, which was the deadliest year of World War II for Americans. 

The results also showed larger losses in life expectancy in the Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black populations, of 3.65 and 2.80 years respectively. 

The gap in life expectancy between the United States and the average for the peer countries also exceeded five years in 2021. 

The largest loss in life expectancy between 2019 and 2021 for other countries studied was 0.93 years in England and Wales, and in Northern Ireland. 

Switzerland had the highest life expectancy recorded in the study last year – at 83.85 years – followed by South Korea with 83.65. 

- by Sophie Trigger, NZ Herald