Life expectancy in the U.S. has increased more slowly than expected, despite the fact that it spends more on health care than any other country. Researchers point to obesity and smoking as the primary culprits.
Study Blames Smoking and Obesity
Life expectancy in the U.S. has continued to increase over the last 25 years, but not as quickly as many of the 20 other countries in the National Research Council study. The study measured how many years of life remain, on average, once a person hits 50 years of age.
A HealthDay News article explains this conundrum.
Since the United States spends more on health care than any other country, this slowed pace is striking, said report co-author Samuel H. Preston, a professor of demography at the University of Pennsylvania. The results are “surprising in terms of our self-concept,” he added.
“We determined the most likely source of our shortfall is cigarette smoking, particularly the heavy amount of smoking done by American women,” he said.
“Obesity also appears to be important, but we are less certain of its role,” he added. “We are the heaviest country in the Western world.”
Researchers said that 50 years ago, Americans smoked more than Japanese or Europeans, and it’s catching up to us now in these numbers.
In general, smoking has decreased overall in the U.S., but the sharp rise in obesity may have canceled out those benefits, researchers point out. According to the study, obesity could be responsible for anywhere from 1/5 to 1/3 of the current life expectancy gap.
Women are a couple of years behind Italy, Spain and France in life expectancy at age 50. This comparison extends to other countries as well, such as:
- America: 33.1 years
- Sweden, Japan, Switzerland and Australia: 35.5 years
Since smoking has become more widespread among women, this slow trend is expected to continue throughout the next decade: life expectancy will go up, but at a much slower rate than several other countries.
Though still increasing slower than some other countries, the disparity isn’t as wide for men, who are still 1-1.5 years behind the leading countries.
Fewer U.S. men have been smoking over the last 20 years, but the effects of that downward trend may take a while to show up. In fact, it takes about 30 years for smoking trends to affect mortality rates.
Despite the slow increase, US rates are still going up, and they are still higher than most of the world. Survival rates for cardiovascular disease and cancer are higher than in most other industrialized countries, and the same goes for diagnosis.
Researchers mentioned that better health habits and better preventive health systems could help speed the increase in life expectancy.