Americans live shorter lives -- and are in generally worse health -- than citizens of other wealthy nations, according to an extensive report released Wednesday by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.
The analysis of international health data, available here, determined that American men had the lowest life expectancy among men in 17 countries, including wealthy European nations, Australia, Canada and Japan. U.S. women had the second-lowest life expectancy (only Danish women fared worse.)
The study listed nine health areas in which Americans came in below average: infant mortality and low birth weight, injuries and homicides, adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, HIV and AIDS, drug-related deaths, obesity and diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease and disability.
The U.S. earned relatively high marks for its low cancer death rates and success controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels, the researchers said. But by and large, said panel chair Dr. Steven H. Woolf during a phone call with reporters Wednesday, the team was “struck by the gravity of our findings,” which spanned the population.
“Even Americans who are white, insured, have college educations and seem to have healthy behaviors are in worse health than similar people in other nations,” said Woolf, a researcher who directs the Center for Human Needs at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va.
The disparities were pervasive across all age groups up to 75, Woolf told the reporters, and seemed to stem from a variety of wide-ranging causes, including U.S. car culture, the number of uninsured people in the country, and weaknesses in our outpatient healthcare system.
Gun use emerged as a factor: Americans were seven times more likely to die in a homicide and 20 times more likely to die in a shooting than their peers. In all, two-thirds of the mortality disadvantage for American men was attributable to people under the age of 50 -- and slightly over half of that resulted from injuries, said study collaborator Samuel Preston, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.
It is possible that there’s something about American culture, and the high value it places on individualism and personal autonomy, that results in its poor performance, the researchers noted. It also may be that the U.S. is ahead of the curve on a general trend, and that other nations will also start to experience the health problems that have been on the rise here since the 1980s, Preston said.
The panel called for further research, including coordination with other countries to see if any of their successful strategies or policies could be adapted to apply in the U.S. But Woolf stressed that Americans shouldn’t wait for new reports to act to combat factors such as obesity. “We know what to do,” he said. “It’s a matter of our society finding the resources to act.”
The report includes this interactive graphic, which allows readers to compare the U.S. ranking with the peer countries on specific causes of death.