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Poor US Health Care System behind Life Expectancy Lag


Is the life expectancy of Americans falling behind other nations because of a high rate of obesity, smoking, traffic accidents, and homicides? No, according to a Commonwealth Fund supported study: the blame lies with the poor US health care system.

Poor health care in the United States affects life expectancy

Spending on health care in the United States has increased at least twice the rate as 12 other countries, including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Yet fifteen-year survival rates for men and women ages 45 and 65 in the United States have declined when compared with these other countries over the past three decades.

The group that fared the worst in America is white women: by 2005 their fifteen-year-survival rates were lower than those in all 12 other countries. American men did not do much better: the fifteen-year life expectancy for 45-year-old men also fell, dropping from third in 1975 to 12th in 2005.

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Peter Muennig and Sherry Glied at Columbia University, who authored the study, “What Changes in Survival Rates Tell Us about U.S. Health Care,” came to their conclusions after examining behavioral risk factors and health care spending for all 13 countries. Their report notes that “the findings undercut critics who might argue that the US health care system is not in need of major changes.”

They found very little difference in the smoking habits among Americans when compared with the other countries, although Americans were more likely to be obese than their counterparts in other countries. However, the percentage of obese adults rose faster in most other countries between 1975 and 2005 than in the United States. In terms of traffic fatalities and homicides, these could not explain the significant change in life expectancy found in the study.

Muennig, who is an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, noted that given the United States does not fare worse in smoking, obesity, traffic fatalities, and homicides, they were lead to “believe that failings in the US health care system, such as costly specialized and fragmented care, are likely playing a large role in this relatively poor performance in improvements in life expectancy.”

Commonwealth Fund President Karen Davis said that the study’s findings are “stark evidence that the U.S. health care system has been failing Americans for years,” and has resulted in this lag in life expectancy. Although she pointed out that the “Affordable Care Act will take significant steps to improve our health care system,” any potential benefits from this act will likely not be evident for many years.

Columbia University