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Life expectancy is down in Canada for the third year in a row, according to Statistics Canada.

A child born today in Canada can expect to live to 81.3 years of age. That’s down from 82.3 years in 2019 – before the pandemic.

A one-year loss in life expectancy may not seem like a big deal, but it is. It’s only the second time this sharp a drop has happened in Canada in the past century.

In fact, life expectancy has been climbing steadily for decades: 71 in 1960, 75 in 1980, 79 in 2000, and 82.3 in 2019.

Life expectancy is an oft-misunderstood measure. It’s not so much a prediction of how long an individual can expect to live, but rather a crude measure of a country’s health, the only real measure of overall population health we have.

The take-home message in the new data: Canada is getting less healthy. The numbers tell us that more people are dying, and that while most deaths occur in older people, there are relatively more deaths in younger age cohorts.

The drop in life expectancy is a global phenomenon, unprecedented since the Second World War. The U.S., for example, saw a mind-boggling loss of 2.4 years in life expectancy between 2019 and 2021. And they already have some of the worst outcomes in the Western world, with life expectancy hitting a nadir of 76.4 years.

COVID-19 has played significant role. The 1.1 million COVID deaths in the U.S. is unparalleled, yet they have conveniently forgotten the pandemic.

Canada isn’t much better on that score. Statistics Canada reminds us that 19,716 Canadians died of COVID-19 in 2022, the highest annual death rate since the pandemic began.

The high number can be attributed, at least in part, to indifference. There are virtually no mitigation measures like masking any more, and vaccination rates have fallen sharply. While in the first two years of the pandemic, there were sharp spikes in mortality, followed by lulls, the deaths occurred more quietly and steadily in 2022.

Officially, there were 14,466 COVID deaths in 2021, and 16,313 in 2020, though the novel coronavirus only started killing in March of that first pandemic year. Canada is on track for roughly 7,000 COVID-19 deaths in 2023.

But COVID is not the only factor in the rise in mortality or the drop in life expectancy.

There were 334,623 deaths in Canada in 2022. The top 10 causes of death were, in order: Cancer, cardiovascular disease, COVID-19, unintentional injuries, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other lower respiratory conditions, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, Alzheimer’s and dementia, and chronic liver diseases like cirrhosis.

Cardiovascular disease and cancer are by far the two biggest killers, accounting for 41.8 per cent of mortality in 2022, down from 44.3 per cent a year earlier.

Mortality rates for cancer and heart disease have fallen steadily for decades, thanks to sharp drops in smoking rates and better treatments, but there are hints those gains have plateaued.

The data are a reminder that we don’t pay nearly enough attention to the toll of chronic illnesses, which account for six of the top 10 leading causes of death, and the large majority of health spending. The Washington Post has produced a superb series on this issue.

How we live clearly affects how long we live. But our investments in public health and prevention remain paltry.

Another major contributing factor in the marked drop in life expectancy is the blandly named category of “unintentional injuries.” Those 18,365 deaths in 2022 (again, up a lot from 15,527 in 2019) include everything from falls to motor vehicle crashes to drug overdoses.

Lumping those diverse causes together masks the effects of the toxic drug crisis, which is now claiming close to 8,000 lives a year.

During the first year of the pandemic, there were 7,362 overdose deaths recorded, double the previous year. That number has remained high. Because those deaths are mostly younger people, there are clear consequences on life expectancy.

Overdoses are, along with suicide, often described as “deaths of despair.” But the new Statistics Canada data show that, contrary to popular belief, deaths by suicide have actually fallen significantly since the pandemic began, down to 3,593 in 2022 from 4,581 in 2019.

While the drop in life expectancy may not keep us up at night, it should serve as a reminder that, pandemic or not, we need to do better. The health of Canadians is slipping, and we need to focus on some problem areas to recapture our gains in longevity.

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