Americans Don’t Live as Long as We Should
We're falling further behind for many reasons.
NPR (“‘Live free and die’? The sad state of U.S. life expectancy“):
Just before Christmas, federal health officials confirmed life expectancy in America had dropped for a nearly unprecedented second year in a row – down to 76 years. While countries all over the world saw life expectancy rebound during the second year of the pandemic after the arrival of vaccines, the U.S. did not.
One would naturally jump to the hyper-politicization of vaccination, masking, and other pandemic-related countermeasures but that doesn’t seem to be it.
Then, last week, more bad news: Maternal mortality in the U.S. reached a high in 2021. Also, a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association found rising mortality rates among U.S. children and adolescents.
“This is the first time in my career that I’ve ever seen [an increase in pediatric mortality] – it’s always been declining in the United States for as long as I can remember,” says the JAMA paper’s lead author Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Now, it’s increasing at a magnitude that has not occurred at least for half a century.”
Across the lifespan, and across every demographic group, Americans die at younger ages than their counterparts in other wealthy nations.
How could this happen? In a country that prides itself on scientific excellence and innovation, and spends an incredible amount of money on health care, the population keeps dying at younger and younger ages.
The answer, alas, is that there are many, many answers, each contributing a bit to the puzzle.
One group of people are not surprised at all: Woolf and the other researchers involved in a landmark, 400-page study ten years ago with a name that says it all: “Shorter Lives, Poorer Health.” The research by a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences and funded by the National Institutes of Health compared U.S. health and death with other developed countries. The results showed – convincingly – that the U.S. was stalling on health advances in the population while other countries raced ahead.
The authors tried to sound an alarm, but found few in the public or government or private sectors were willing to listen. In the years since, the trends have worsened. American life expectancy is lower than that of Cuba, Lebanon, and Chechnya.
Ten years later, here’s a look back at what that eye-popping study found, and why the researchers involved believe it’s not too late to turn the trends around.
I don’t take comparisons with less developed countries seriously, as they’re as likely to be a function of differential methods and degrees of diligence in record-keeping. But there’s no denying the larger trends.
Americans are used to hearing about how their poor diets and sedentary lifestyles make their health bad. It can seem easy to brush that off as another scold about eating more vegetables and getting more exercise. But the picture painted in the “Shorter Lives” report could shock even those who feel like they know the story.
“American children are less likely to live to age 5 than children in other high-income countries,” the authors write on the second page. It goes on: “Even Americans with healthy behaviors, for example, those who are not obese or do not smoke, appear to have higher disease rates than their peers in other countries.”
The researchers catalog what they call the “U.S. health disadvantage” – the fact that living in America is worse for your health and makes you more likely to die younger than if you lived in another rich country like the U.K., Switzerland or Japan.
That just seems weird, even downright implausible, no?
“We were very systematic and thorough about how we thought about this,” says Woolf. The panel looked at American life and death in terms of the public health and medical care system, individual behaviors like diet and tobacco use, social factors like poverty and inequality, the physical environment, and public policies and values. “In every one of those five buckets, we found problems that distinguish the United States from other countries.”
Yes, Americans eat more calories and lack universal access to health care. But there’s also higher child poverty, racial segregation, social isolation, and more. Even the way cities are designed makes access to good food more difficult.
“Everybody has a pet thing they worry about and say, ‘it’s oral health’ or ‘it’s suicides’ – everyone has something that they’re legitimately interested in and want to see more attention to,” says John Haaga, who was the director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Research at the National Institute on Aging at NIH, before he retired. “The great value of an exercise like this one was to step back and say, ‘OK, all of these things are going on, but which of them best account for these long-term population level trends that we’re seeing?’ “
The answer is varied. A big part of the difference between life and death in the U.S. and its peer countries is people dying or being killed before age 50. The “Shorter Lives” report specifically points to factors like teen pregnancy, drug overdoses, HIV, fatal car crashes, injuries, and violence.
“Two years difference in life expectancy probably comes from the fact that firearms are so available in the United States,” Crimmins says. “There’s the opioid epidemic, which is clearly ours – that was our drug companies and other countries didn’t have that because those drugs were more controlled. Some of the difference comes from the fact that we are more likely to drive more miles. We have more cars,” and ultimately, more fatal crashes.
“When we were doing it, we were joking we should call it ‘Live free and die,’ based on the New Hampshire slogan, [‘Live free or die’],” Crimmins says. “The National Academy of Sciences said, ‘That’s outrageous, that’s too provocative.’ “
Some of these things are interrelated. We’re fatter because we drive more and walk less than just about anybody else. And, because cars allow sprawl, that makes it harder to have high-quality healthcare and great selections of fruits and vegetables close to everybody.
But we’re also more prone to suicide and drug addiction than our wealthy counterparts. And more violent.
There are some things Americans get right, according to the “Shorter Lives” report: “The United States has higher survival after age 75 than do peer countries, and it has higher rates of cancer screening and survival, better control of blood pressure and cholesterol levels, lower stroke mortality, lower rates of current smoking, and higher average household income.” But those achievements, it’s clear, aren’t enough to offset the other problems that befall many Americans at younger ages.
This suggests that we’re investing our healthcare resources poorly. We decided six decades ago that old people shouldn’t have to worry about paying for healthcare so established Medicare. But we’re left to fend for ourselves for the first 64 years of our lives.
We’ve also apparently done a better job of convincing young people not to take up smoking that to take up exercising and healthy eating. Or, you know, not killing themselves.
The NIH should undertake a “thorough examination of the policies and approaches that countries with better health outcomes have found useful and that may have application, with adaptations, in the United States,” the authors wrote.
In other words: let’s figure out what they are doing that works in other places, and do it over here.
That’ll never catch on, unfortunately. Americans are practically allergic to doing things the European way.
Dr. Ravi Sawhney, who helped conceive of and launch the “Shorter Lives” study at NIH before he left the agency, had high hopes that the report would make a mark. “I really thought that when the results came out, they would be so obvious that people would say: Let’s finally do this,” he says.
Ten years on, how much of the detailed action plan has been done?
“To be brief, very little of that happened,” Woolf says. At the time, he says, NIH officials didn’t seem very interested in raising awareness about the panel’s findings or in following up on its proposed research agenda. “There was some media coverage at the time that the report rolled out, but NIH was not involved in trying to promote awareness about the report.”
Crimmins agrees. “There was a little bit more research, but there wasn’t any policy reaction,” she says. “I thought there might be, because it’s embarrassing, but it just tends to be ignored.” Those who are interested in this issue, she notes, tend to be those invested in “marvelous things they think are going to delay aging,” even though people older than 75 are the only age group in the country that already does comparatively well.
But they’re the only ones organized on this issue, so their voice is amplified. Plus, all of the leaders are old, too!
Woolf calls it a misconception to assume that America’s great scientific minds and medical discoveries translate to progress for the health of the population. “We are actually very innovative in making these kinds of breakthroughs, but we do very poorly in providing them to our population,” he says.
The nature of our fee-for-service distribution system means we do a really good job of providing the best care to those who can pay the fees. If you’ve got good insurance—which you do if you’re elderly—and near a good hospital, you’re getting world-class care. Otherwise, your mileage will vary.
Sawhney thinks the federal government should try harder to fix the problems documented in the “Shorter Lives” report. He doesn’t think lack of public awareness is the problem. “I really think that most Americans know that Americans are more overweight and obese and that we have higher rates of disease and live shorter lives than other countries,” he says, “It’s just the NIH and the CDC that don’t want to take the responsibility for that failure or to do anything about it.”
Crimmins says, in her experience, lawmakers and federal health officials don’t like talking about how the U.S. is lagging behind other countries.
“I convened a meeting in Washington with the National Center for Health Statistics [part of CDC] about increasing healthy life expectancy,” she recalls. “It was a relatively small meeting, but we brought experts from Canada.” An official at the time gave what she calls a “typical” response, saying: “Oh, we can’t have anything but an American solution to these issues – we can’t listen to other countries.”
“International studies are not the flavor of the month – they never will be,” says Haaga. “The problem with foreign countries is that they’re not in someone’s congressional district.”
It’s more than a missed opportunity, says Woolf. It’s a tragedy.
“If you add up the excess deaths that have occurred in the United States because of this unfolding problem, it dwarfs what happened during COVID-19, as horrible as COVID-19 was,” Woolf says. “We’ve lost many more Americans cumulatively because of this longer systemic issue. And if the systemic issue is unaddressed, it will continue to claim lives going forward.”
Again, it’s not so much “an issue” as dozens of little ones.
Rather than feel overwhelmed at the immensity of the problems, Sawhney suggests, the focus should instead be on the fact that every other rich country has been able to figure out how to help people live longer, healthier lives. That means that Americans could do it too, he says.
He believes that the changes might not be as hard as some policymakers and health officials seem to think. “You look at these healthier countries, they’re free countries – England, France, Italy – they’re not banning delicious foods. They’re not chaining people to treadmills,” he says. “Americans love to travel to Europe, to Australia, to Canada to enjoy their foods and their lifestyles, and so the idea that we might say, ‘Hey, maybe we could bring some of those lifestyles back’ – I don’t think people are going to go up in arms that we’re taking away their freedoms.”
Getting policy ideas from other countries is just an obvious move, Woolf adds. “If a martian came down to earth and saw this situation, it would be very intuitive that you [would] look at other countries that have been able to solve this problem and apply the lessons learned,” he says.
In historical research he’s been doing, “I found that there are dozens and dozens of countries on almost every continent of the world that have outperformed the United States for 50 years,” he says. “It’s worth taking a look at what they’ve done and Americanizing it – you don’t have to take it right off the shelf.”
Some of the policies he’s identified as helpful include universal, better coordinated health care, strong health and safety protections, broad access to education, and more investments to help kids get off to a healthy start. These policies are “paying off for them,” he says, and could for Americans, too.
Even on a purely monetary basis, this would likely pay for itself. But we’re societally allergic to much of this.