It's not news that the United States, one of the richest nations on earth, hasn't achieved the same growth in life expectancy as other high-income countries such as Japan and France. Over a period of half a century, US women gained about six years in life expectancy compared with eight years gained, on average, by women in nine other high-income countries. American men, too, haven't gained as many years as those in other countries.
But government aging experts wanted to understand why, so they convened an expert panel to come up with some credible reasons. The findings were published today in a report issued by the National Research Council.
Here are some of the biggest factors that could account for the differences:
1. Smoking. While smoking today seems to be far more on public display in European and Asian countries than it is in the United States, 50 years ago that wasn't the case. "A greater proportion of Americans smoked and smoked more intensely than was the case in other countries," the authors wrote. "And the health consequences of this behavior are still playing out in today's mortality rates." Heart disease, lung cancer, and other life-threatening health problems caused by smoking is estimated to account for a 78 percent gap in life expectancy in American women compared with their foreign counterparts and a 41 percent gap for American men.
2. Obesity. Just how much our nation's skyrocketing obesity rate affects our lifespan remains controversial, but the panel of experts estimated that it could account for up to a third of the shortfall compared with other rich nations. What's more, American adults are "somewhat more sedentary", the experts write, than European adults, but the research is too scant to estimate how much this contributes to a shorter life expectancy.
3. Health care differences. Our health care system appears to do a poorer job of prevention and is rife with disparities in care across income levels. "Certainly the lack of universal access to health care in the U.S. has increased mortality and reduced life expectancy," write the study authors, though this becomes a much smaller factor in those over 65, because they have access to Medicare.
In addition, our pricey health care system does a better job when it comes to treating cancer and heart disease. Cancer detection and survival is better in the United States than other countries and so, too, survival rates from heart attacks.
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