US Lags Behind, Again
The US may boast great shopping and beautiful scenery, but when it comes to health, it's a sad story. Yet another study reveals that Americans suffer from far more disease and early death than their peers elsewhere. Compared to 17 of the wealthiest nations, the US ranks dead last in terms of longevity. American men die an average of 3.7 years earlier than in the leading nations on the list, while American women die 5.2 years earlier.1 And the findings don't apply only to the elderly: Americans of all ages have shorter life expectancies and more illness. Even worse, the gap keeps widening as the US continues to fall farther behind.
Lead author, Dr. Steven Woolf says, "What struck us--and it was quite sobering--was the recurring trend in which the U.S. seems to be slipping behind other high-income countries…"We expected to see some bad news and some good news. But the U.S. ranked near and at the bottom in almost every heath indicator. That stunned us."2
The report, from the National Research Council and the Institute for Medicine, compared rates of death at various ages and from various diseases among the world's wealthiest nations. While obesity and lifestyle play a major role in the dire US health and life statistics, as expected, other factors also came into focus. In particular, deaths among men under the age of 50 accounted for two-thirds of the mortality gap, and only 35 percent of those deaths resulted from disease.3 Accidents and violence accounted for the majority of the fatalities: an astounding 19 percent resulted from murder, 18 percent from car accidents, 16 percent from other accidents and four percent from suicide.
Death from violence in the US is 20 times higher than elsewhere. Take a look at this bar chart for a visual representation of violent death in the US compared to elsewhere--it's almost unbelievable. The US also far outranks other nations in rates of automobile casualties, with three times the number of deaths from car accidents compared to first-place Japan. That probably has to do with rates of drug and alcohol addiction. In fact, the US also has the highest rates of death from drug abuse and alcoholism. On the other hand, Japan has the highest suicide rates. In fact, one of the only areas where the US fares okay is in suicide rates, ranking 10th, although the rate of suicide by firearms is 20 times higher in the US.
Not surprisingly, the infant mortality rate in the US is higher than everywhere else. So are rates of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, and teen pregnancies. The bottom line is that Americans have the least likelihood of surviving to age 50.
Then there are all the US deaths that ARE caused by excessive, lethargic lifestyles. Again, not surprisingly, Americans have the highest mortality rates from diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and lung disease. The good news is that Americans have low to moderate death rates from many cancers, and if they manage to reach the age of 75, they'll probably outlive peers elsewhere. On the other hand, Alzheimer's rates in the US are at least five times higher than in top-rated Japan, so that long life may not be healthy or happy.
You've got to wonder what's going on, given all the money that pours into healthcare in the US. Some blame lifestyle; some blame the healthcare system; and some say it's because the US has higher rates of poverty and social inequity and so many people don't have access to medical help. But the study found that even among affluent, Caucasian Americans who have health insurance, the findings remain consistent.
Certainly Americans eat too much, exercise too little, drive too much, get exposed to too many toxins, and experience horrid conditions at the hospital. All of these things have to be factors in the poor performance of US health and life statistics. So must be the poor quality of the healthcare system. A visit to the doctor in the US usually means a prescription and little preventative care; sole reliance on pharmaceuticals rarely serves patients well. The bottom line is that we really don't have the best healthcare system in the world--far from it.
But still, one can't ignore the fact that so many in the US are dying from causes other than disease. It does seem that there's something fundamentally wrong in the culture, something that cuts across the realms of both physical and psychological health. Perhaps the same problems that trigger homicide, drug abuse, drunk driving, and other accidents also cause people to eat recklessly and to turn on the TV instead of the treadmill. Perhaps there's just too much stress in the culture, and that shows up on all levels of health.
Case in point: a report just came out indicating that one out of every three workers in the US gets absolutely no paid time off for sickness.4 The US is the only developed nation in the world that doesn't give workers a guaranteed break when they're ill. Of course, this means that people get exposed to diseases in the workplace because their colleagues don't stay home; but it also means that people don't get the rest they need when their bodies signal that it's time to slow down. While Europeans typically get 25-30 vacation days, Americans get 12, on average.5 And at least one in ten workers gets no vacation time at all.
One thing the experts agree on is that pouring more money into healthcare isn't the fix. In fact, looking at the country rankings in the report, the best solution might be to eat like the Japanese, live like the Swiss, and play like the Italians--a variation on the Eat, Pray, Love theme.
- 1. Wilson, Jacque. "Why Americans are dying earlier than their international peers." 9 January 2012. CNN Health. 11 January 2013. http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/09/health/international-health-report/index.html
- 2. Knox, Richard. "US Ranks Below 16 Other Rich Countries in Health Report." 9 January 2012. NPR Shots. 11 January 2013. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/01/09/168976602/u-s-ranks-below-16-other-rich-countries-in-health-report
- 3. Tavernise, Sabrina. "For Americans Under 50, Stark Findings on Health." 9 January 2013. The New York Times. 11 January 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/10/health/americans-under-50-fare-poorly-on-health-measures-new-report-says.html?_r=0
- 4. Isidore, Chris. "One in three U.S. workers has no paid sick days." 11 January 2013. CNN Money. 11 January 2013. http://money.cnn.com/2013/01/11/news/economy/paid-sick-days
- 5. Hunter, Marnie. "Americans get fewer vacation days in 2012, study finds." 15 November 2012. CNN Travel. 11 January 2013. http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/15/travel/vacation-deprivation-study/index.html