Why Healthcare Will Always Cost a Fortune

Adding herbs to a burger makes it healthier, new research suggests. (Image credit: Pam Roth/stock.xchng)

Conventional wisdom has long been that there are better countries in which to get sick than the United States, whose healthcare system is not among the most admired. But a new study finds otherwise, suggesting that the cost of healthcare is fueled largely by poor health habits in this country and that death rates aren't the fault of the system so much as the individual.

"The U.S. actually does a pretty good job of identifying and treating the major diseases," Samuel H. Preston, a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania, is quoted in The New York Times. "The international comparisons don’t show we’re in dire straits."

Preston argues that soaring healthcare costs in this country can't all be blamed on inefficiency in the healthcare system. "Americans pay more for health care partly because they get more thorough treatment for some diseases, and partly because they get sick more often than people in Europe and other industrialized countries," the Times writes.

That latter point is an oft-ignored key to the whole healthcare debate (at least in terms of the science, and putting aside the political arguments and the poor logic used by both sides): Americans get sick more. Why? Some argue that rather than an effective healthcare system, the United States has a "disease care" system, whereby far too many people are sedentary and eat poorly, leading to obesity and other health issues (obesity, in turn, raises the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and other diseases). Add smoking into the mix — the elimination of it would cause U.S. life expectancy to rise significantly.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would agree. The agency says these bad and avoidable habits are the underlying cause of half of the country's deaths.

The key data to support this: While the U.S. life expectancy is 78, it is 80 in the UK, 81 in Canada, and 83 in Japan, according to the World Health Organization. We're even behind Cuba. Preston says this longevity gap, as it's known, is due mostly to higher rates of heart disease and cancer among middle-age Americans.

Proponents of healthcare reform would point out, however, that one factor that contributes to U.S. healthcare costs is that the poor and the uninsured are forced into expensive emergency rooms when they do get sick, and we all pick up the tab one way or another.

Here's a big rub: As Ezra Klein points out in the Washington Post, most people don't even know how much their healthcare costs. You can probably cite your income, estimate what you have in your 401K, pin down your house payment and maybe take a rough shot at what you spend on food every week. But do you know what you pay for health coverage? Because employers typically foot a big portion of the bill, most people have no clue. And without a clue, how can one have an informed opinion about the healthcare debate?

So, some numbers: The average U.S. family's health coverage runs $13,375, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. That's up 138 percent in the past 10 years. Overall healthcare costs per capita are higher in this country than any other, Kaiser states (the foundation notes that healthcare spending is rising faster than incomes in all countries, but it is growing faster in the United States than in most countries).

If money is not your thing, then let's circle back to the life and death issue: A recent study found that not smoking, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight reduces the risk of getting the most common and deadly chronic diseases — diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer — by about 80 percent. Can't stomach all those changes? Try one: The life expectancy for a smoker is 64.

The upshot: Regardless of whether Washington can break from business as usual and pass meaningful and effective healthcare reform, my money is on Americans continuing to abuse their bodies, and those of their children who'll tend to eat what's put in front of them, with highly processed foods, soft drinks by the big gulp, and a host of other hard-to-break bad habits. Until the people rise up, literally off the couch and figuratively to take care of themselves — health care vs. disease care 101 — we can all expect healthcare to cost a fortune.

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In The Water Cooler, Imaginova's Editorial Director Robert Roy Britt looks at what people are talking about in the world of science and beyond. Find more in the archives and on Twitter.

Robert Roy Britt

Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as Space.com and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.