US Healthcare to Blame for Poor Life Expectancy Rates

The above is the headline from an October 8, 2010 article in the BBC News. This article, along with many others reported on a study showing that the life expectancy ranking for adults in the US is falling behind most other advanced nations. This decline comes in spite of the fact that US healthcare costs are the highest in the world and have increased at a greater rate than the other nations.

The study published on October 7, 2010 in Health Affairs, was funded by a grant from the Commonwealth Fund and conducted by researchers at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, in New York City. The study looked at life expectancy rates for the United States and compared these findings to that of twelve nations which included, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

In this study researchers looked at the 15 year survival rates for men and women at ages 45 and 65 for the United States and the 12 other nations in this study. Prior to this study, most people believed that the US slippage in ranking was either due to poor health habits such as smoking and obesity, or automobile accident rates. This study was able to show that these factors were either not different in the US than the other nations, or they did not play a significant role in the health rankings. The only factor that was significantly different was the health care delivery system itself.

Peter A. Muennig, the lead author of the study noted, “It was shocking to see the U.S. falling behind other countries even as costs soared ahead of them. But what really surprised us was that all of the usual suspects – smoking, obesity, traffic accidents, and homicides – are not the culprits.”

According to the study, US healthcare spending increased at nearly twice the rate of the other nations between 1970 and 2002. This increased spending corresponded with worsening survival rates relative to the other nations studied. The researchers were able to show that the 15-year survival rates for 45-year-old men in the U.S. declined, dropping from third place in 1975 to 12th in 2008. The study also noted that in 1950, the US ranked fifth among leading industrialized nations for combined male and female life expectancy at birth, as compared to being ranked 49th in 2008.

In the BBC News article, the authors gave some explanation for the findings by saying, “We speculate that the nature of our health care system – specifically, its reliance on unregulated fee-for-service and specialty care – may explain both the increased spending and the relative deterioration in survival that we observed.” They continued, “If so, meaningful reform may not only save money over the long term, it may also save lives.”

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