Clarifying Misunderstanding of Life Expectancy and COVID-19.

PositionTHE ACTUARIAL REPORT

Life expectancy, generally, is a measure of the expected future lifetime of an individual person. There are various measures of life expectancy used in different contexts, which can lead to confusion when decreases attributed to certain events--e.g., the COVID-19--pandemic, are reported. One might conclude that reports showing expected life span is a prediction of the exact number of years they can expect to live.

An example of a report subject to such misinterpretation is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics data brief, which shows that estimates of the average life expectancy of Americans decreasing by 1.8 years during 2020, primarily due to COVID-19.

Basically, there are two life expectancy measures--period life expectancy and cohort life expectancy.

LIFE EXPECTANCY MEASURES

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.

The CDC data brief uses the period life expectancy measure. More detailed considerations of the two measures are broken down into their essential elements below.

Period life expectancy, measured as of a given age, is the remaining number of years that a hypothetical individual can expect to live (on average) if rates of death prevailing during a given period continue indefinitely. When mortality rates increase significantly during a given year--as has been the case during the COVID-19 pandemic--period life expectancy will decline noticeably because it is calculated as if these higher rates of mortality will continue in all future years. This often-cited measure of life expectancy can vary dramatically from one year to the next. The CDC report highlights period life expectancy at birth as well as at age 65--the number of years that a newborn or a 65-year-old would...

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