“Why do Americans live lives so short?
Let’s talk life expectancy.
The stats first. They tell a clear story: Americans now live shorter lives than men and women in most of the rest of the developed world. And that gap is growing.
Back in 1990, shouts a new study published last week in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, the United States ranked just 20th on life expectancy among the world’s 34 industrial nations. The United States now ranks 27th – despite spending much more on health care than any other nation.
Americans, notes an editorial the journal ran to accompany the study, are losing ground globally “by every” health measure.
Why such poor performance? Media reports on last week’s new State of U.S. Health study hit all the usual suspects: poor diet, poor access to affordable health care, poor personal health habits, and just plain poverty.
In the Wall Street Journal, for instance, a chief wellness officer in Ohio opined that if Americans exercised more and ate and smoked less, the United States would surely start moving up in the global health rankings.
But many epidemiologists – scientists who study health outcomes – have their doubts. They point out that the United States ranked as one of the world’s healthiest nations in the 1950s, a time when Americans smoked heavily, ate a diet that would horrify any 21st-century nutritionist, and hardly ever exercised.
Poor Americans, then as now, had chronic problems accessing health care. But poverty, epidemiologists note, can’t explain why fully insured middle-income Americans today have significantly worse health outcomes than middle-income people in other rich nations.
The University of Washington’s Dr. Stephen Bezruchka has been tracking these outcomes since the 1990s. The new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Bezruchka told Too Much last week, should worry Americans at all income levels.
“Even if we are rich, college-educated, white-skinned, and practice all the right health behaviors,” he notes, “similar people in other rich nations will live longer.” ”