Global Life Expectancy Increased Between 1990 And 2021, But Pandemic Stalled Progress

Published 1 month ago
By Forbes | James Farrell
Researcher working in a biochemist laboratory
(Source: Getty Images)


Global life expectancy rose by 6.2 years between 1990 and 2021, driven by reductions in deaths from diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, stroke and ischemic heart disease—but the world faced significant setbacks due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new study by the Lancet.


The leading causes of death worldwide remained consistent from 1990 to 2019—with ischemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lower respiratory infections topping the list—with global life expectancy improving in that time period thanks in part to annual reductions in deaths from all causes ranging from .9% to 2.4%.

The Covid-19 pandemic hampered progress, with pandemic-related mortality causing a net reduction in life expectancy of 1.6 years between 2019 and 2021 and Covid-19 becoming the second-leading cause of death—the first major shakeup of the rankings in decades.


Changes in life expectancy varied significantly by region, the study found—the so-called super-region consisting of Southeast Asia, East Asia and Oceania saw the greatest net gain in life expectancy from 1990 and 2021, rising by 8.3 years due to big drops in mortality from chronic respiratory diseases, stroke, lower respiratory infections and cancer, with “strong management” of the pandemic curbing life expectancy losses due to Covid-19 to just .4 years between 2019 and 2021.

Reductions in deaths from enteric diseases—which include diarrhea and typhoid—significantly contributed to improvements in life expectancy, estimated to contribute an overall increase of 1.1 years globally.

Control of mortality due to diarrheal disease contributed to significant gains in life expectancy in the super region of South Asia, which had the second-highest increase among super regions in life expectancy with 7.8 years, and in Eastern sub-Saharan Africa, which had the highest increase in life expectancy of any local region with 10.7 years.


“On one hand, we see countries’ monumental achievements in preventing deaths from diarrhea and stroke,” said Dr. Liane Ong of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluations, one of the authors of the study, in a statement. “At the same time, we see how much the Covid-19 pandemic has set us back.”



31.5%. That’s how much the age-standardized mortality rate for ischemic heart disease, the leading cause of death worldwide, dropped between 1990 and 2021. The rate in 2021 was 108.7, with Covid-19 the second-leading cause of death at 94.0.


The largest decline in life expectancy due to Covid-19 was in Latin America and the Caribbean, where it caused a 3.6-year reduction.


The study is the first of its kind to compare deaths from Covid-19 to other leading causes of death, according to the authors. It notes Covid-19 may have had indirect effects on mortality rates as well, with physical distancing measures affecting mortality for other diseases, and deferred care-seeking leading to pandemic-related deaths not attributable directly to Covid-19. Another study published by the Lancet earlier this month previously found the global life expectancy dropped by 1.6 years due to the pandemic, with the United States seeing the highest excess mortality rate when compared to similar high-wealth nations.