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America’s health disadvantage

By Jay MacDonald · Bankrate.com
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Posted: 11 am ET

We unknowingly list an important health risk factor every time we fill out a health insurance insurance application.

Stumped? It's your address -- specifically that "United States" part.

A voluminous new report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine finds that Americans die sooner and suffer more disease and injury at all ages than people in other high-income nations.

The 18-month study is the first to compare multiple diseases, injuries and behaviors across the entire lifespan between Americans and people in 16 affluent democracies, including Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Japan and much of western Europe.

Among the findings:

  • U.S. life expectancy at birth is 78.2 years, lower by more than a year than the 79.5-year average of European Union countries and nearly five years lower than Japan's 83.
  • Americans had the highest levels of diabetes among the 17 countries studied.
  • American death rates were higher than average for 21 diseases, including heart and lung diseases.
  • The U.S. placed at or near the bottom in nine key measures, including: infant mortality and low birth weight; injuries and homicides; teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections; prevalence of HIV and AIDS; drug-related deaths; obesity and diabetes; heart disease; chronic lung disease; and disability.

"We were struck by the gravity of these findings," said Steven Woolf, professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University and chair of the panel that wrote the report. "Americans are dying and suffering at rates that we know are unnecessary because people in other high-income countries are living longer lives and enjoying better health. What concerns our panel is why, for decades, we have been slipping behind."

How is it possible that the country that spends double what other westernized countries spend per capita on health care could show such dismal outcomes? The researchers place the lion's share of the blame not on our health insurance, our health care system or health care reform, but instead on our personal behaviors, lifestyle choices and societal dangers -- including gun-related homicides, drunk driving and drug use. The choices we make as a society disproportionately hurt our children and adolescents, the researchers found.

On a rare positive note, Americans have lower death rates from stroke and cancer, better control of blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and lower rates of smoking than other countries. What's more, if we make it to age 75, we live longer, partly because we have fewer primary care physicians but more medical specialists than elsewhere.

Small problem there as well: We visited doctors' offices on average just 3.9 times in 2009, compared to an average of 6.5 times in the European countries, and only followed through to receive half of the recommended treatments.

How do we improve our national health? The report recommends a national awareness campaign that could lead to a discussion of healthy behaviors.

The question is: Will the land of the free listen?

Follow me on Twitter: @omnisaurus

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