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AARP Bulletin

Editor's Letter

Americans Face Shorter Life Span Than the Rest of Industrialized World

Factors include obesity and inefficiencies in health care system

The doctor's news is not good. Americans are in poorer health and are dying sooner than the rest of the industrialized world. Call it the "mortality gap."

The facts are disquieting. A 2011 study of 17 industrialized countries — 13 in Western Europe, plus the U.S., Australia, Japan and Canada — found that American men, whose life expectancy is 75.6 years, ranked last, and U.S. women, at 80.7 years, ranked 16th. Worse, this gap has been widening for the past three decades.

Brain Quiz: After age 20, thousands of brain cells die every day. True or False?

Wonder why this is happening? So did the National Institutes of Health, which ordered the Institute of Medicine to undertake a broad study of U.S. deaths involving drugs and alcohol, obesity and diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, infant mortality, injuries and homicides, and HIV and AIDS. Researchers found what they called "a pervasive pattern of shorter lives and poor health" crossing all socioeconomic lines.

Although the United States spends nearly twice as much on health care as other countries, Americans eat too much, rely on cars too much and get medical care that is often inaccessible and unaffordable. More specifically, the study cited the lack of access to primary care physicians and Americans' relatively unhealthy behaviors. While Americans drink and smoke less than their peers, they eat more calories per person, use seat belts less, are more prone to gun violence and have higher rates of drug abuse. Demographic trends and next year's expansion of medical coverage will put even more pressure on the shorthanded U.S. medical workforce. Our dependence on cars gets special attention, too, for helping create neighborhoods that discourage walking and contribute to obesity.

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The study concludes, "The tragedy is not that the United States is losing a contest with other countries, but that Americans are dying and suffering from illness and injury at rates that are demonstrably unnecessary. Superior health outcomes in other nations show that Americans also can enjoy better health."

These trends affect all age groups. "Americans who do reach age 50 generally arrive at this age in poorer health than their counterparts in other high-income countries," the study found, "and as older adults they face greater morbidity and mortality from chronic diseases that arise from risk factors (e.g., smoking, obesity, diabetes) that are often established earlier in life."

What to do? Steven H. Woolf, professor of family health at Virginia Commonwealth University and director of the NIH study, has a suggestion: Just as important as eating well, exercising, driving safely and avoiding smoking, Americans over 50 "can help address the larger problem by encouraging their elected officials and neighbors to address the root causes of the health disadvantage … which threatens not only their health but that of their children and grandchildren."

That's a plan. It's a simple call to action that mobilizes the real possibilities for older Americans — individually and collectively. We must live smarter and pass the word.

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