Life Expectancy in US Slows Due to Obesity and Smoking
For 25 years, the life expectancy at age 50 in the United States has steadily increased due to medical advances, but that trend is in jeopardy. Despite the fact that we spend more on health care than any other country, living longer in America isn’t increasing as fast because of the high rates of obesity and smoking.
Smoking Declining, But Obesity Remains Significant Problem
According to a recent report from the National Research Council, a division of the US National Academy of Sciences, life expectancy in women at age 50 is 33.1 years, while it’s 35.5 on average for women in Japan, Australia, Sweden and Switzerland. Life expectance for men is not as significant, but still 1 to 1.5 years behind the leaders.
Much of the damage to our longevity rates happened decades ago. The effect of smoking on mortality rates, for example, can take up to 30 years to be seen. Fifty years ago, more Americans smoked than Europeans and Japanese. This difference still affects life expectancy today not only in the US, but also in Denmark and the Netherlands.
Thankfully, within the past 20 years, we have seen a decline in American’s smoking, thanks to smoking bans and an increased awareness of the damaging effects of tobacco use.
The rate of obesity is a little less clear, but may be responsible for one-fifth to one-third of the life expectancy gap between the US and other countries, according to the report. Of the top ten leading causes of death, as listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in December, obesity and factors that contribute to it (ie: poor nutrition, sedentary lifestyle) factor into at least five.
"It's clear that our behavioral patterns are not what would lead to optimal health," said Samuel Presto, co-chair of the Council. "That's partly a reflection of personal decisions. It's perhaps a reflection that we are not doing a good job in preventive medicine," he said.
Lack of universal access to healthcare also may play a role, but this is a less significant factor for those over the age of 65 because of Medicare. Healthcare access, though, can still be improved upon.
What we call a healthcare system, notes Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center a Yale University School of Medicine, is primarily a disease-care system, focused on the treatment of disease after it develops. The new health care reform act has provisions to help change that trend, offering preventive screenings in many cases to prevent chronic disease or catch them earlier when they may cause less damage to health.
"Only when invest in health promotion programming in the places people work and learn and play will this kind of comparison to our peers prove less embarrassing," Katz said.