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Being American Is Bad for Your Health

We're not getting sicker by accident.
 
 
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"Americans are sicker and die younger than people in other wealthy nations."

That stark sentence  appears in the January 2013 issue of the  Journal of the American Medical Association, and it comes from the authors of a landmark  report -- "Shorter Lives, Poorer Health" -- on differences among high-income countries.

You probably already know that America spends more on health care than any other country. That was one of the few facts to survive the political food fight pretending to be a serious national debate about the Affordable Care Act.

But the airwaves also thrummed with so many sound bites from so many jingoistic know-nothings claiming that America has the best health care system in the world that today, most people don't realize how shockingly damaging it is to your wellness and longevity to be born in the U.S.A.

This is made achingly clear in the study of the "U.S. health disadvantage" recently issued by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, which was conducted over 18 months by experts in medicine and public health, demography, social science, political science, economics, behavioral science and epidemiology.

Compare the health of the American people with our peer nations -- with Britain, Canada and Australia; with Japan; with the Scandinavian countries; with France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Side by side with the world's wealthy democracies, America comes in last, and over the past several decades, it's only gotten worse.

With few exceptions -- like death rates from breast cancer -- we suck. Our newborns are less likely to reach their first birthday, or their fifth birthday. Our adolescents die at higher rates from car crashes and homicides, and they have the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections. Americans have the highest incidence of AIDS, the highest obesity rates, the highest diabetes rates among adults 20 and older, the highest rates of chronic lung disease and heart disease and drug-related deaths.

There is one bright spot. Americans who live past their 75th birthday have the longest life expectancy. But for everyone else -- from babies to baby boomers and beyond -- your chances of living a long life are the butt-ugly worst among all the 17 rich nations in our peer group.

In case you're tempted to blow off these bleak statistics about American longevity by deciding that they don't apply to someone like you -- before you attribute them to, how shall we put it, the special burdens that our racially and economically diverse and culturally heterogeneous nation has nobly chosen to bear -- chew on this: "Even non-Hispanic white adults or those with health insurance, a college education, high incomes, or healthy behaviors appear to be in worse health (e.g., higher infant mortality, higher rates of chronic diseases, lower life expectancy) in the United States than in other high-income countries." And by the way, "the nation's large population of recent immigrants is generally in better health than native-born Americans."

Why are we trailing so badly? Some of the causes catalogued by the report:

The U.S. public health and medical care systems: Our employer -- and private insurance-- based health care system has long set us apart from our peer nations, who provide universal access. The right loves to rail against "socialized medicine," but on health outcomes, the other guys win.

Individual behavior: Tobacco, diet, physical inactivity, alcohol and other drug use and sexual practices play a part, but there's not a whole lot of evidence that uniquely nails Americans' behavior. The big exception is injurious behavior. We loves us our firearms, and we don't much like wearing seat belts or motorcycle helmets.

 
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