Canadian Life Expectancy Drops for Third Consecutive Year Amid COVID-19 Impact

People are silhouetted on a walkway in downtown Vancouver, as condos and apartment buildings in North Vancouver are seen across the harbour, on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Statistics Canada has reported a concerning trend in national health, with life expectancy in Canada falling for the third straight year. The average Canadian’s life expectancy now stands at 81.3 years, down from 82.3 years in 2019, marking a historically significant downturn in public health.

COVID-19 as a Key Factor

The COVID-19 pandemic has been identified as a major contributor to this decline. With more than 19,700 Canadians succumbing to the virus in 2022, the highest annual death toll since the pandemic’s onset, COVID-19 emerged as the third-leading cause of death. This surge in fatalities is partly attributed to highly transmissible variants and a relaxation of pandemic restrictions, including masking requirements.

Provincial Disparities

New Brunswick experienced the most significant drop in life expectancy, falling to 79.8 years from 80.9 in 2021. Saskatchewan saw the steepest decline over three years, with life expectancy plummeting two full years to 78.5 in 2022 from 80.5 in 2019. Atlantic Canada reported a more than sevenfold increase in COVID-19 deaths compared to the previous year, the highest regional jump in the country.

The Role of Other Factors

While COVID-19 played a central role, other factors have contributed to the decline in life expectancy. An increase in deaths among younger adults is partially linked to the opioid crisis, as noted by Patrice Dion, an analyst at Statistics Canada. Many deaths still under investigation by coroners or medical examiners, including homicides, suicides, and drug toxicity deaths, are also influencing this trend.

For men, the highest income earners have a life expectancy of 83, while the lowest income workers can expect to live to 75. Among women, the richest can expect to live to 86, compared to an average life expectancy of 83 for poor women. (Martin Meissner/Associated Press)

Comparison with the United States

In contrast, life expectancy in the United States saw a near one-year decline from 2020 to 2021, dropping to its lowest level since 1996. The pandemic contributed to the majority of this decline, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Leading Causes of Death

Cancer and heart disease continued as the primary causes of death in Canada, accounting for 41.8% of all fatalities in 2022. Other significant causes included accidents, stroke, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, influenza, pneumonia, Alzheimer’s disease, and liver disease.

Expert Insights

Dr. Doug Manuel, a senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, expressed concern over these trends. “This is a measure of how our health is doing as Canadians. And it means that we’re doing worse,” he commented. The stagnation and potential rise in deaths from cancer and cardiovascular disease, driven by increasing obesity, diabetes, and blood pressure, were also highlighted as areas of concern.

Pathway Forward

The unpredictability of the pandemic and the evolving nature of the opioid crisis make forecasting future trends challenging. The need for ongoing vigilance and public health measures remains critical as Canada, along with the rest of the world, continues to navigate these complex health challenges.