Among nations, Americans are not very healthy

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The news last week for Americans under 50 was not good.

On average, they are in poorer health and more likely to die before 50 than young people in other developed Western European countries, Canada, Japan and Australia.

That’s the bleak assessment of the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Research Council.

A panel of experts formed to analyze the results called our higher rates of disease and shorter lives “the U.S. health disadvantage.”

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The 378-page report is the first comparison of health and death data for people of all ages and examines a wide range of maladies. When compared to the “peer” group of 17 nations, the U.S. fared poorly in nine areas:

Infant mortality, accidents and homicides, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and AIDS, drug deaths, obesity and diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease and disability.

The researchers found that American men ranked last in life expectancy and American women ranked second to last.

“Something fundamental is going wrong,” Dr. Steven Woolf told the New York Times. “Something at the core is causing the U.S. to slip behind these other high-income countries. And it’s getting worse.”

And that’s very bad news for a nation that already spends considerably more money than all others on health care.

While the report may not have been front-page news last week, another related story was: our national debt.

If you are worried about our ballooning federal debt, federal health care spending is the most frightening component going forward. If current trends continue, Medicare and Medicaid will eventually crowd out other government spending on infrastructure, defense, education and research.

It is also easy to see how higher rates of death and injury translate into a major disadvantage for the U.S. economy as employers suffer lost productivity and higher health insurance rates.

The researchers started out expecting to find a mixed bag of good and bad news for the U.S. “But the U.S. ranked near or at the bottom in almost every health indicator,” Woolf told the Times. “That stunned us.”

The only bright spots: we detect cancers earlier, control high blood pressure and cholesterol better and the very oldest Americans, those over 75, tend to live longer than their “peers” in other countries.

The authors could not put a finger on one specific reason for our poor health results.

Instead, they pointed to four likely explanations:

First, the relatively large number of people without health care insurance in the U.S. who, as a result, lack access to regular primary care services.

Second, our unhealthy behaviors. While we may smoke and drink less than people in some cultures, young people in the U.S. are more likely to consume more calories, abuse drugs, fail to wear seat belts, have accidents involving alcohol and use firearms in violent ways.

Third, while Americans generally have high incomes, the poor in the U.S. are poorer and have less social mobility than low-income people in many of the 17 nations.

Interestingly, they said the U.S. has fewer “safety net programs that can buffer the negative effects of poverty.”

Finally, the authors said, we have structured our communities around automobiles, discouraging physical activity and encouraging obesity.

Having this data in hand should be a wake-up call for U.S. policy makers. As Dr. Woolf said, there is something wrong “at the core” of how we live.

Is it our habits? Our attitudes? Our approach to life? Our health care system?

For years, our nation has overcome one threat after another. The challenge now before us is to figure out what’s happening and fix it. 

It is often said that our health is our greatest source of wealth. If so, our wealth seems to be slipping through our fingers.

rrhoades@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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