What’s Ailing America? New Report Finds U.S. Falls Behind International Peers in Health and Life Expectancy

A new study by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine compares the health of Americans to their international counterparts, and the results are bleak.

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Mark Makela / Reuters

A patient has her blood pressure taken before receiving treatment at the Remote Area Medical (RAM) clinic in Wise, Virginia July 20, 2012.

A new study by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine compares the health of Americans to their international counterparts, and the results are bleak.  Americans, regardless of their status or background, live shorter lives and experience more injuries and illnesses than their peers in almost any other high-income country.

“It’s a tragedy,” says Steven H. Woolf, the professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, Va., and chair of the panel that wrote the report. “We expected to see some bad news and some good news,” Woolf told the New York Times. “But the U.S. ranked near and at the bottom in almost every heath indicator. That stunned us.”  The report also showed that America’s “health disadvantage” still exists when correcting for wealth and access to health care, showing that America’s high level of income inequality and lack of universal health coverage aren’t the only contributing factors.

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The 378-page report goes further than previous studies in comparing death rates and health policies for Americans across all age groups; previous studies have tended to focus on older ages.

Entitled “U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health”, the study compared the existing data from the 1990s to 2008 on life expectancy and health in the U.S., alongside data from 16 “peer countries” including Canada, Japan, Australia and much of Western Europe. It builds on findings from a similar 2011 report, which found that despite improvements in Americans’ life expectancy and health over the past century, both metrics were still lagging those of other high-income democracies.  Among the 17 countries ranked, American men came last in life expectancy, American women second to last.

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So why exactly is that the case? The report examines “the role of underlying social values and public policies” in America’s lagging health statistics, identifying a range of factors including individual behaviour, social and economic status, education and income, environment and public health policies. What its authors sought to emphasize was that it was not the work of any one of these single issues in isolation, but the combined effect of these factors that have resulted in this great disadvantage.

Americans were more likely to “engage in certain unhealthy behaviors…that increase the risk of fatal injuries,” according to the report — including those caused by car accidents, gun violence and drug overdoses. The authors, citing a 2011 study,  found that the rate of firearm related deaths was higher in the U.S. than in 23 other countries. The authors also cited research showing that Americans were less likely to wear seat belts in cars and more likely to be in a car accident than residents of other countries, and also more susceptible to taking drugs and to overdoses. These risks, coupled with other well-known factors such as higher caloric intake and the highest diabetes rate of any country on the list, all combined to make Americans lead shorter and more unhealthy lives.

Those under 50 are particularly disadvantaged, the data indicates. “I don’t think most parents know that, on average, infants, children, and adolescents in the U.S. die younger and have greater rates of illness and injury than youth in other countries,” says Woolf. The U.S. has had the highest rate of infant mortality rate among developed countries for many decades now, in part due to low birth weights and premature births.

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Americans over 75 do tend to live longer than their peers in other countries, but that only seems to beg the question of what has caused younger generations of Americans to be less healthy than their elders.

For the authors of the report, the most distressing aspects of the findings were not that “the United States is losing a contest with other countries, but that Americans are dying and suffering from illnesses and injury at rates that are demonstrably unnecessary.”

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Had the health and life expectancy of Americans been better than those of their peers, the "obvious" conclusion would have been that this was because America had the best (albeit most expensive) health care system in the world. But since the reality is the other way around, they are looking for all the other explanations such as seat belt use, gun violence, caloric intake, and so on. 

The basic fact is that better (or more) healthcare can improve quality and quantity of life in developing countries where the primary healthcare is lacking. But beyond a certain level (as in US), more health care is a reflection of more sickness, i.e., a lower quality and quantity of life. I am afraid the worst is yet to come. American children have the highest rates of (legal) drug use, and needless vaccinations. These rates have skyrocketed in just one generation. 


It's pretty obvious why we're behind: we allow insurance companies to suck up precious health care dollars that other countries do not.  Our health care system exists for the benefit of insurance companies, not for the health of the nation.  Capitalism is all very well, but it has no place in health care.


@jhoughton1 It's accuracy like yours that needs to be cultivated.  Too many are vested in the business of selling health in exchange for wealth.  The mere rudeness of many doctors receptionists belies the privilege of the entitled.   No greater "title" exists in our country's economy  than the entitlement that goes with the title of "Medical Doctor"


@Whatanotion @jhoughton1 Please do not append such nonsense to my posting. It has nothing to do with what I said, and I do not want your "ideas" associated with mine. 


@jhoughton1@Whatanotion A more purblind and stupid retaliatory and arrogant comment couldn't be imagined.  "Please leave my comments alone". Really?  You arrogant ass.  You're confusing thoughtful people who can read between the lines.

Healthseeker like.author.displayName 1 Like

Here are a just a few things among many why Americans are not healthy:

1) antibiotic overuse both in medicine and food production, a major threat to public health (80% of antibiotics produced go into the factory farmed meat animals.)
2) Genetically Modified (toxic) foods, banned in Europe over a decade ago are stacking the shelves of our grocery stores and we don't even know it (not labeled....Monsanto and friends poured millions of dollars into advertising using outright lies, to defeat Proposition 37 in California which would have made it necessary to label foods containing genetically modified organisms..the rest of the country would probably have followed suit.)
3) Award winning advertising campaigns promoting the HPV vaccine Gardasil (with a whopping 675 micrograms of toxic aluminum) secured maximum sales, bringing us to a tally of 106 girls dead from the HPV vaccine as of  October 2011 and  24,000 adverse events with many girls disabled, some severely. (Suggest reading former Canadian vaccine and drug regulator's book "Corrupt to the Core" by Dr. S. Chopra) American children are over vaccinated and sicker than ever.  The pharmaceutical companies make big money, and parents from vaccine damaged children may not sue them by law.

4)Deaths from prescription drugs now outnumber traffic fatalities in the U.S.A. Fatalities are fueled by overdoses on pain and anxiety medications.  The pervasive mentality is why lead a healthy life style when you can pop a pill for whatever ails you

5) Some eye opening statistics of medical intervention in this country:
Annual deaths from - 
Adverse drug reactions 106,000
Medical error 98,000
Bedsores 115,000
Infection 88,000
Malnutrition 108,000
Unnecessary procedures 37,000
Surgery related 32,000
Depending on which source you look at, these figures are conservative.
6) Americans spend more on health care than citizens of any other country but we rank 50th in life expectancy and 47th in infant mortality. Dismal for the most expensive system in the world!

starproperty0819 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Seeiously, most americans eat crap and fast food every day. Add stress. Add the high cost of health care. What other result can we expect from this study


When health insurance and health care costs are based on share holder profits, this is the end result.