Study: Americans have shorter, sicker lives

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(MoneyWatch) Americans have shorter life expectancies and poorer health than people in 16 comparable countries -- Canada, Australia, Japan, and 13 countries in Western Europe -- in spite of the U.S. spending far more on health care.

That's the damning conclusion of a recent report by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine.

Of the 17 countries included in the study, the U.S. ranked last for life expectancy at birth for men and No. 16 for life expectancy at birth for women. In addition to living shorter lives, Americans also have a pattern of poorer health over the entire course of their lives -- at birth, during childhood and adolescence, for young and middle-aged adults, and for older adults.

Specifically, we have significantly higher rates than other countries of infant mortality, injuries and homicides, adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and AIDS, drug-related deaths, obesity and diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease, and disability.

The report cites four causes for why the U.S. compares poorly to other countries in terms of longevity and health:

  • Health systems. We have a relatively large uninsured population; in general, Americans are more likely to find health care inaccessible or unaffordable.

  • Health behaviors. We're more likely to be overweight, abuse drugs, be in traffic accidents involving alcohol, and be victims of violence and firearms. We're also less likely to use seatbelts.

  • Social and economic conditions. We have higher levels of poverty and income inequality, leading to lower levels of education among the poor. Our safety net programs are less able to protect the poor from the negative health aspects of poverty.

  • Physical environments. Our landscape is built around transportation via automobiles, leading to less physical activity and more obesity.

One positive result from the report was insightful: Americans who reach age 75 have longer remaining life expectancies than people in the peer countries. This demonstrates that the small, healthy segment of our population will take the steps necessary to improve their health and will reap the gains, while the larger part of our population will continue to fall farther behind in health levels and life expectancy.

It also shows that while we know how to live longer, healthier lives, a large portion of our population is just not doing it. This advantage -- knowing what we should do -- seems to be used chiefly by people who take the time to educate themselves about healthy behaviors and have the economic means to act on their insights.

What does this mean for you? The conclusions will sound familiar to regular readers of my blog: You'll most likely live longer and spend less money on medical bills if you eat the right amounts and kinds of food, get plenty of exercise, don't smoke, and don't abuse drugs or alcohol. Also buckle your seatbelt, and take reasonable precautions to avoid or prevent violence.

You should also nurture your social network, and try to find meaning and purpose in your later years. And while these steps won't guarantee that you'll actually live longer and spend less on medical bills, if we all adopted these recommendations, collectively Americans would live longer and be healthier.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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