Fig. 1: Annual values of life expectancy in Germany with fit (blue). The fit did not respect the values for 2021 and 2022.
Life expectancy is relatively difficult to calculate. The mortality risk has to be determined from death and population figures for each individual year of life. A hurdle is that data are often only available in age cohorts. So the missing values have to be interpolated. Using the mortality risks, a fictitious newborn cohort is projected forward year by year until all have died. A weighted average value is calculated from those who died each year in this modeled time series, yielding the life expectancy.
Life expectancy in Germany increased for many years until 2020, allthough this trend seemed to be gradually approaching a saturation point, which might be around 82 years (Fig. 1).
Here’s a graph for 1999 through the provisional 2021 result (as of 3 April 2022 data from CDC WONDER):
You can see the crude rate is higher than the age-adjusted rate for most of the years, and that’s due to the aging of the population. Basically, the Boomers have been getting older, and their older ages (and higher mortality compared to where they were in 2000), have an effect on how many deaths there are overall — thus the crude rate continually increasing as there are more and more old people.
However, until the pandemic hit, the age-adjusted death rate in general decreased, though we had a few years in the 2010s in which the age-adjusted death rate did increase… and yes, that was due to drug overdoses. We will get to that in a bit.
In any case, both the crude rate and age-adjusted rates did jump up by a lot in 2020 due to the pandemic, and COVID deaths were even higher in 2021. But there were other causes of death also keeping mortality rates high in 2021.
I will point out that even with all this extra mortality, the age-adjusted death rate in 2021 is still below where it was in 1999.
That does not mean things are hunky-dory.
This is one of the dangers of collapsing death rates into a single number. The increase in death rates has differed by age group, and it has been far worse for teens and young adults through even young middle-age than it has been for the oldest adults.
Yes, COVID has killed the oldest adults the most, but their death rates have increased the least. It’s all relative.
The American Academy of Actuaries has released a new public policy paper and issue brief cautioning that clarification may be needed regarding estimated life expectancy showing significant decreases in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Reports of considerable decreases in life expectancy driven by COVID-19 may certainly garner attention, but they can potentially be misleading when based on a technical measure that assumes heightened pandemic mortality will persist indefinitely,” said Academy Senior Pension Fellow Linda K. Stone. “Service to the public is core to the American Academy of Actuaries’ mission, and we would be remiss not to share the actuarial profession’s expertise to help the public interpret such reports.”
The Academy’s new Essential Elements paper,Clarifying Misunderstanding of Life Expectancy and COVID-19, which is based on a December 2021 issue brief developed by the Academy’s Pension Committee, Interpreting Pandemic-Related Decreases in Life Expectancy, cites the potential of confusion arising from recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates of significant life expectancy decreases primarily due to COVID-19. The CDC used a measurement known as “period life expectancy” to estimate life expectancy changes in 2020, publishing in July 2021 a preliminary estimate of a 1.5-year year-over-year decrease, and in December 2021 a final estimate of a 1.8-year decrease. However, the CDC’s methodology and the estimated decreases assume that the heightened mortality of the COVID-19 pandemic during the 2020 year will persist indefinitely—an unlikely scenario.
Period life expectancy measures demonstrate fluctuations that reflect events that influenced mortality in this particular period.14 For example, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 resulted in a dramatic decrease in period life expectancy, which was more than offset by an increase in period life expectancy the next year. A male baby born in 1917 had a period life expectancy of 52.2 years, while a male baby born in 1918 had a period life expectancy of only 45.3 years—a reduction of almost 7 years.15 The following year, a male newborn had a period life expectancy of 54.2, an increase of almost 9 years over the period life expectancy calculated in 1918 for a newborn male. These changes are much larger than those seen thus far with COVID-19, demonstrating the relative severity of that earlier pandemic relative to the current one.
It is instructive to review the impact of calculating life expectancies on a cohort basis, rather than a period basis, for these three cohorts of male newborns in the late 1910s. Using mortality rates published by the SSA for years after 1917, for a cohort of 1917 male newborns, the average life span was 59.4; for the 1918 cohort, average life span was 60.0; and for 1919, it was 61.5. Even these differences are heavily influenced by the fact that the 1917 and 1918 cohorts had to survive the high rates of death during 1918, while the 1919 cohort did not.
If both period and cohort life expectancy are measured as of 1920 for each of these groups (the 3-year-old children who were born in 1917, 2-year-old children who were born in 1918 and 1-year-old children who were born in 1919), differences are observed in these measures as they narrow substantially because the high rates of mortality during 1918 have no effect on those who survived to 1920. This is summarized in the table below.
Basically, there are two life expectancy measures— period life expectancy and cohort life expectancy. Period life expectancy generally is based on the assumption that current rates of death continue indefinitely. Cohort life expectancy is more heavily influenced by long-term expectations. Period life expectancies can vary dramatically from one year to the next when there is a short-term increase in mortality.
Period life expectancy can be a useful metric for year-over-year comparisons in normal times but tends to exaggerate the effect of nonrecurring events. Cohort life expectancy is likely what most people envision when thinking about the concept of life expectancy because cohort life expectancy is an estimate of the actual number of years that a typical individual might be expected to live based on reasonable expectations for future conditions. For this reason, cohort life expectancy is the measure used by the Actuaries Longevity Illustrator that can help individuals estimate how long they might live.