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Why the US ranks 49th for life expectancy

November 30, 2010

When I was living in Canada, I noticed that the folks waiting in line at the local coffee shop or walking down the street seemed a little bit taller than the US residents I saw back home. And I was right-  Canadians are taller than us. Could this have anything to do with the country’s health care system?  Studies often correlate a country’s health with its average height- we used to be the tallest country in the world- now we’re behind residents of Northern Europe, starting with the Dutch.

We’re also way behind when it comes to life expectancy-we’re a disappointing 49th in the world.  A report in November’s issue of Health Affairs has one guess as to why- our crappy, inefficient health care system.  The study aimed to determine whether high risk behaviors, like smoking and obesity, were the real reason why our life expectancy rate is so low.  What researchers found was that while those behaviors and traits decreased over time, life expectancy got worse, not better.

We found that the risk profiles of Americans generally improved relative to those for citizens of many other nations, but Americans’ relative fifteen-year survival has nevertheless been declining… The findings undercut critics who might argue that the US health care system is not in need of major changes.

The authors conclude that our poor ranking has more to do with our incredibly inefficient health care system-which is the most expensive in the world, but the 49th most effective (if you view living longer as the end goal of health care.)

The NYtimes has more on the study, explaining that health care costs in the US have increased steadily, with no sign of improvements in life expectancy.

In 1975 the United States was close to the average in health care costs, and last in 15-year survival for 45-year-old men. By 2005 its costs had more than tripled, far surpassing increases elsewhere, but the survival number was still last — a little over 90 percent, compared with more than 94 percent for Swedes, Swiss and Australians. For women, it was 94 percent in the United States, versus 97 percent in Switzerland, Australia and Japan.

But not all scientists agree on the study’s conclusions.  The NYtimes quotes a University of Pennsylvania professor who calls the researcher’s theory “extremely speculative.”

Whether you agree with the study or not, there’s no denying cost doesn’t always equal quality, especially in the case of our health care system.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dr. Seth Bock permalink
    December 6, 2010 12:21 am

    Megan, you are correct that our health care system needs lots of work. But that is only half the problem. When food corporations are allowed to produce virtually any synthetic food item, load it with who know’s what and place it two feet from the grocery store aisle floor (where little tots can grab it and parents can’t see it) we create legions of unhealth kids that get hooked on manufactured taste sensations that causes great harm. People will argue that this is a free market and companies should be able to load the grocery store shelves with what ever garbage they want and people have the RIGHT to eat what ever they want without government intervention. In fact, reams of research shows that people sucumb to all maner of marketing scheme and their taste buds are manipulated by scientists that want to produce an almost addictive physiological response to said garbage.
    If we can get the food regulatory bodies to actually regulate what goes on the shelves, diseases such diabetes, obesity and cancer will decrease significantly and people will live happier and healthier lives in general.

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