WASHINGTON – Life expectancy in the US reached a new high point: 78.8 years. This is good news. Longer lives, according to some analysts, could be attributed to healthier life styles. It would appear that some Americans eat better and exercise more. As a result, they live longer. Well, I hope so. But the truth, according to others, may be instead that people live longer simply because they get more medical treatment, mostly for totally preventable diseases.
US in context
Besides, if you look at this life expectancy high number in context, it is really not that great. Compared to other developed countries, America does not shine. Indeed, the US comes at number 42 in global life expectancy rankings. (CIA, World Factbook). Most interesting, America is behind Italy, Spain and Greece, three of the worst performing and now semi-impoverished European Union members. These are highly indebted countries, with horrendous unemployment and declining economies that must have caused cuts in health care spending. And yet their life expectancy is better than America.
High spending, modest outcomes
More broadly, let’s consider that the US spends about 18% of GDP on health care, an absurdly large amount, and by far the largest percentage among all rich countries. In fact, other rich countries at most spend around 9 or 10% of their national wealth on health.
So, while we should celebrate our improved numbers, if we look at the US in context, there is hardly anything to brag about.
The bottom line is that here in America the most expensive health care system in the world buys you a life expectancy below Greece, and only a little bit ahead of Portugal, another below average EU economy.
And the reason for this mediocre performance is largely because, as a Nation, we are not doing enough to embrace life styles that promote “wellness”. It may be indeed the case that at least some Americans now recognize the health value of a healthier diet and more exercise. And this is good.
But America has a long, long way to go. One in three Americans is either obese or overweight. Obesity related chronic diseases are among the leading causes of death. Which is to say that many illnesses that reduce quality of life and hasten death are caused by bad habits that can and should be dropped in favor of healthier ones.
Prevention can do wonders
And the experts know this. Here is a quote from a recent piece in Health Day News that addressed the correlation between medical care, life style choices, overall health and life expectancy:
“Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a preventive cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said these “major causes of death are lifestyle driven. We are doing a better job in prevention and treatment.”
And though people may be eating better and exercising and giving up smoking, a lot of the improvement in life expectancy results from better medical care for many of the chronic conditions, she said.
Preventing illness, by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol and quitting smoking, have gone a long way in preventing heart disease and stroke. In addition, screening has reduced deaths from breast, colon and other cancers.”
“The most common causes of death are due to how you choose to live,” Steinbaum said. “If we can get how we eat and how we exercise under control, we can prevent many major causes of death,” she said. [Bold added]
“We can stop being a treatment-oriented country, and become a prevention-oriented country and extend life tremendously,” Steinbaum said. [Bold added]
Drop the bad habits
So, here is the real picture. More Americans are getting better treatments for cardiovascular and other diseases, plus more screenings that catch cancers at the early stages. Improved health care helped to reduce mortality. Hence our higher life expectancy numbers. But there is a better way that will get you much better results.
Indeed, as Dr. Steinbaum says, dropping the bad habits that shorten our lives, (unhealthy food, lack of exercise), would make a real difference. Healthier people live longer.
Right now people live a bit longer mostly because they get more and possibly better treatment. But the irony is that most of the diseases that are cured more effectively are preventable. Indeed, type two diabetes and many cardiovascular illnesses come along as a result of bad diet and lack of exercise. Which is to say that we focus our resources on the wrong target: cure, instead of prevention.
The game changer
Therefore, the real game changer would be for millions of not so healthy Americans to fully embrace wellness goals, this way helping America to become a “prevention-oriented country“. This is a much better way to “extend life tremendously“.
And, by the way, this is not extremely complicated. In many cases, eating more fruits and vegetables and walking at least 30 minutes a day could make the difference between a premature death and a more enjoyable, longer life.
As we can see by looking at other countries, longer lives are not the result of pouring more and more money into heath care aimed at treating preventable diseases. The real trick is to prevent illnesses by adopting the good habits that help you stay healthy.