Canadians’ average life expectancy fell to the largest degree ever recorded during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data released this week by Statistics Canada.
COVID-19 became Canada’s third-leading cause of death in 2020, and Statistics Canada says the country saw 7.7 per cent more deaths that year than in 2019.
The agency says Canadians’ average life expectancy dropped to 81.7 years in 2020 from 82.3 year in 2019 — a drop of more than half a year.
“It is substantial, because that is the largest decline ever observed — at least since 1921, the year our national vital statistics registration system was introduced,” Statistics Canada demographer Patrice Dion explained.
Despite the historic decline, Canada’s 2020 life expectancy remained among the highest in the world, according to Statistics Canada.
“Most other countries have (also) seen a decline. In some countries like the United States, Spain or Italy, the decline has been one year and a half. Few countries managed to have their life expectancies stable or increasing,” Dion said.
The largest declines were recorded in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.
Nationally, the decline was greater for men, at 0.7 years, than women, who saw the average life expectancy fall by 0.4 years.
The gender trend was generally reflected at the provincial level, except in Quebec, where women’s life expectancy fell by more than men, and in B.C., where the life expectancy of women remained stable.
Mortality rates increased in nearly all age groups, with the death rate among people aged 25 to 39 years old the highest it has been in more than 20 years, according to Satistics Canada.
“That’s another indication of the indirect impacts of the pandemic, so not only COVID-19 related deaths, but also deaths related to other causes,” Dion said.
COVID-19 itself was directly responsible for more than 16,000 deaths in 2020 but statistics agency says the pandemic may have had indirect consequences that led to increased deaths across the country — particularly among younger Canadians.
The agency said just 50 deaths among people under the age of 40 were attributed to COVID-19 in 2020, while deaths linked to substance use climbed among that cohort.
“We’ve seen an increase in the number of deaths related to substance use — that’s something we’ve seen in British Columbia,” Dion said.
Advocates and health officials British Columbia have drawn a link between the pandemic and surging deaths attributed to illicit drug toxicity.
Statistics Canada said alcohol-related deaths also climbed in 2020.
Dion said the annual figures are calculated on deaths occurring in a specific year, and as a result should the worst impacts of the pandemic begin to wind down the country’s average life expectancy would be expected to quickly rebound.
Life expectancy data for 2021 should be available near the end of this year or in early 2023.