Americans die younger than people in other wealthy countries — and the gap is getting worse, a new report shows.Men in the USA have shorter lives than men in 16 developed nations. American women also fall near the bottom of the list, living 5.2 fewer years than Japanese women, who live the longest.
Americans “have a long-standing pattern of poorer health that is strikingly consistent and pervasive” over a person’s lifetime, says the report from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, independent, non-profit groups that advise the federal government on health.
“The tragedy is not that the United States is losing a contest with other countries,” the report says, “but that Americans are dying and suffering from illness and injury at rates that are demonstrably unnecessary.”
Family physician Steven Woolf, who chaired the panel that wrote the report, says authors were “stunned by these findings.” The report’s most important purpose, he says, is to alert Americans to these problems.
“Our sense is that Americans don’t really know about this,” says Woolf, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “I don’t think people realise that their children are likely to live shorter lives than children in other countries.”
Most of the difference between American men’s longevity and that of their peers is due to deaths before age 50, and many problems are rooted in poor childhood health, according to the report, published online Wednesday.
The USA ranks at or near the bottom in nine key areas of health: infant mortality and low birth weight; injuries and homicides; teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections; HIV and AIDS; drug-related deaths; obesity and diabetes; heart disease; chronic lung disease; and general disability.
These poor outcomes are especially depressing because the USA spends twice as much on health care — about $9,000 per person — as other industrial countries, says Gerard Anderson of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, who was not involved in the report.
Even the most privileged Americans — those who are wealthy and well-educated — fare worse than their equally affluent counterparts in other countries, Woolf says.
The USA also has the highest child poverty rate, the report says. More than one in five American children live in poverty.
The USA fares better in comparison with other nations in a few measures, such as cancer death rates and greater control of cholesterol and blood pressure, the report says.
Although fewer Americans smoke and drink heavily, they have many other bad habits, the report says. Americans consume more calories per person; are more likely to abuse drugs; less likely to wear seat belts and more likely to be in a traffic accident; and are more likely to use a firearm in acts of violence.
Investing in early childhood education could help to reverse these trends, says David Howard, an associate professor at the Emory University School of Public Health in Atlanta.
Better educated people have an easier time navigating the medical system and applying health information to their lives, Howard says.
Thomas McInerny, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says the report is a reminder that the United States needs to intervene very early in life to make sure kids are healthy, such as through high-quality day care. “We need to do a better job of prevention.”
“We already know what to do,” Woolf says. “It’s more a matter of having the resolve and resources to actually do it.”
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