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Life expectancy is falling in N.L., and experts don't fully understand why

Epidemiologist Dr. Patrick Parfrey says its not unexpected to see a drop in life expectancy after the COVID-19 pandemic.  (Peter Cowan/CBC - image credit)
Epidemiologist Dr. Patrick Parfrey says its not unexpected to see a drop in life expectancy after the COVID-19 pandemic. (Peter Cowan/CBC - image credit)
Epidemiologist Dr. Patrick Parfrey says its not unexpected to see a drop in life expectancy after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Epidemiologist Dr. Patrick Parfrey says its not unexpected to see a drop in life expectancy after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Epidemiologist Dr. Patrick Parfrey says its not unexpected to see a drop in life expectancy after the COVID-19 pandemic. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

Life expectancy has dropped for the third year in a row in Newfoundland and Labrador, according to data from Health Canada.

Live expectancy in the province is sitting at 78.7 years old, but in 2019, people on average lived to about the age of 80.

Epidemiologist Dr. Patrick Parfrey said he suspects the COVID-19 pandemic can partially explain the drop in life expectancy across Canada. In 2022, 276 people died of the illness in Newfoundland and Labrador.

However, many COVID-19 deaths occurred among older populations, which has a less dramatic effect on overall life expectancy, Parfrey said.

"I suppose what was a bit more surprising was that … the life expectancy impact was greater in Newfoundland and Labrador than it was in Canada," he said.

Some of these number variations year-to-year can be attributed to the population size, where a small number of deaths can affect the overall trend more acutely.

But even before the pandemic, life expectancy for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians was shorter than elsewhere in Canada. He said people in this province live two and a half years shorter than other Canadians.

"The biggest proportion of the deaths are these chronic diseases, and that's [what] we need to be putting an emphasis [on]," he said.

Parfrey said life expectancy is improving across Canada, but it's improving more in Canada overall than it is in Newfoundland and Labrador.

He said this divergence has been happening over the past 20 or 30 years.

"That's the piece that we were concerned about … that we were getting worse than Canada over time," he said.

Other causes?

Statistics Canada analyst Patrice Dion said life expectancy has decreased in Canada for the third year in a row, and the data in Newfoundland and Labrador is still preliminary.

He said that StatsCan needs more analysis for an accurate breakdown of how different factors affect life expectancy, like COVID-19 in combination with other underlying health issues.

Dion said age also impacts the overall rate.

"So if you take COVID-19 ... it's affecting more older people. But if you take drug overdose for example, it impacts more the young adults."

More deaths in younger demographics would make life expectancy decline faster.

In western provinces and in the United States, opioid deaths in young people are also affecting life expectancy rates.

Parfrey said that this might not be affecting the overall rates in this province, but more deaths in younger demographics translates to a shorter life expectancy in the country overall.

Statistics Canada says it needs more data to know the impact opioids have on life expectancy in this province.

In 2022, there were 30 opioid deaths in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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