Americans Are in Worse Health Than Other Nationalities

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The U.S. may be one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but it certainly isn't the healthiest, according to a new report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.

The report, released today, compared the U.S. with 16 other high-income democracies, including Australia, Canada, Japan, and many western European countries. It found, on average, that Americans die sooner and experience higher rates of disease and injury than people in other countries. The report is the first look at multiple diseases, injuries and behaviors across the entire human life span.

"Americans are dying and suffering at rates that we know are unnecessary because people in other high-income countries are living longer lives and enjoying better health," said Steven H. Woolf, professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and chair of the panel that wrote the report. "What concerns our panel is why, for decades, we have been slipping behind."

The panel also found that health problems exist among Americans regardless of age and that even Americans with certain advantages, such as higher incomes, a college education and health insurance, are sicker than people in other rich nations.

Some of the key areas of health in which the U.S. fared poorly included infant mortality and low birth weight, injuries and homicides, teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Many of these health conditions disproportionately affect children and adolescents, the report found.  For decades, the U.S. has had the highest infant mortality rate of any high-income country, and it also ranks poorly in measures of  premature birth rates and the proportion of children who live until age 5.

According to the report, American teens have higher rates of death from car accidents and homicide and the highest rates of teen pregnancy. What's more, they are more likely to acquire sexually transmitted infections than their counterparts in other high-income countries.

The findings build on a 2011 National Research Council report that showed a growing mortality gap among Americans over age 50.

"It's a tragedy," Woolf said. "Our report found that an equally large, if not larger, disadvantage exists among younger Americans. I don't think most parents know that, on average, infants, children, and adolescents in the U.S. die younger and have greater rates of illness and injury than youth in other countries."

But some experts, including Dr. Marc Roberts, who specializes in political economy and global health at Harvard University School of Public Health, said the report's findings were "old news."

"Everyone who studies variations in national health systems has known this for decades," he said.

He also said the report's findings were superficial. "The report doesn't dig deeper into why many of these countries do better than the U.S.," he said. "Some of these countries have equal health care access while the U.S. doesn't. Limited access to health care is a major problem."

Reasons for America's low health outcomes include higher levels of poverty and income inequality, poor eating habits, higher rates of drug abuse, more car accidents that involve alcohol and easy access to firearms.

The panel did find that the U.S. outperforms other countries in some areas of health and health-related behavior. For example, Americans over age 75 live longer than their peers in other high-income countries. Americans also have lower death rates from stroke and cancer, better control of blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and lower rates of smoking.

Although the panel acknowledged that strategies are already in place to address low-performing health measures, they recommend that health officials inform the American public about the country's health disadvantages and be proactive.

"Research is important, but we should not wait for more data before taking action, because we already know what to do," Woolf said. "If we fail to act, the disadvantage will continue to worsen and our children will face shorter lives and greater rates of illness than their peers in other rich nations."

Pass It On:  Americans are in worse health than people in other high-income nations.

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