Americans exercising more, but health still ranks near bottom of Western nations

In this June 17, 2013 photo, two women cross the street in Barre, Vt.  (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
In this June 17, 2013 photo, two women cross the street in Barre, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

Americans are making more of an effort to exercise, but that hasn’t done much to reverse our slide into obesity nor improve our health compared to other nations. We’ve increased our average life expectancy—from 75 years to 78 years from 1990 to 2010—but other Westernized countries have made more dramatic improvements despite the greater amount of money Americans spend on our healthcare.

Those findings, which were reported in several new studies published Wednesday, confirms much of what we already know. We’re doing a lousy job as a nation healthwise and throwing money at the problem won’t solve it.

“Despite a level of health expenditures that would have seemed unthinkable a generation ago, the health of the US population has improved only gradually and has fallen behind the pace of progress in many other wealthy nations,” wrote Dr. Harvey Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine in an editorial that accompanied the study which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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While the US outpaces other countries when it comes to treating certain killers like strokes, breast cancer, and colon cancer, Americans die on average four years earlier than those living in Japan, Iceland, or Switzerland. We rank 27th out of 34 industrialized countries for life expectancy likely because of our poorer diets and high obesity rates.

And yet we’re pushing harder to—in the words of first lady Michelle Obama—get moving. More Americans than ever are getting a sufficient level of exercise but this has done little to reduce excess body fat, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

The researchers drilled down to individual counties across the country and found that those with the greatest increases in the amount of reported physical activity didn’t see a corresponding decline in their obesity rates.

They’re likely seeing less cases of heart disease and diabetes, the researchers said, but that wasn’t measured in the study.

“It could be that the calorie imbalance is such that the amount of calories coming in is still much greater than those going out with physical activity,” said study leader Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation during a press briefing.

In other words, we won’t make much progress at whittling our waistlines until we quit our love affair with fast food.

But Murray took an optimistic view of our nation’s health since folks in certain areas are living as long as their Japanese or Swiss counterparts.

Women who reside in one of three counties bordering Washington DC, for example, had an average life expectancy in 2010 of about 83 years while men could expect to live to 81. Those living in Gunnison county in Colorado and Marin county in California enjoyed the same long lifespans.

That compares to a dismal average life expectancy of 66 years for those from Mcdowell, West Virginia or Bolivar, Mississippi.

How does Massachusetts fare? State residents lived about 1.5 years longer than the national average of 76 years for men and 81 years for women in 2010. At first blush, it’s easy to conclude that the life expectancy advantage may be due to the 2006 state health insurance law. But folks in the state had been living about 1.1 years longer than the national average back in 1985, according to data shown on this map.

Previous studies suggest Mass. residents follow a healthier diet, smoke less, and exercise more those in the South or Midwest. And there are likely other differences that haven't yet been identified.

What’s clear, however, is that America is far more diverse in terms of our lifestyle and genetic predispositions than smaller Westernized countries like Iceland or Japan, which may be why our health problems are far more complicated to solve.