Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Life expectancy and health care

From the New York Times, science writer John Tierney looks at reasons for the difference between life expectancy in the US and life expectancy elsewhere.  He doesn't blame our refusal to go to a single-payer system.
...prominent researcher, Samuel H. Preston, has taken a closer look at the growing body of international data, and he finds no evidence that America's health care system is to blame for the longevity gap between it and other industrialized countries. In fact, he concludes, the American system in many ways provides superior treatment even when uninsured Americans are included in the analysis.

An American's life expectancy at birth is about 78 years, which is lower than in most other affluent countries. Life expectancy is about 80 in the United Kingdom, 81 in Canada and France, and 83 in Japan, according to the World Health Organization.

This longevity gap, Dr. Preston says, is primarily due to the relatively high rates of sickness and death among middle-aged Americans, chiefly from heart disease and cancer. Many of those deaths have been attributed to the health care system, an especially convenient target for those who favor a European alternative.

But there are many more differences between Europe and the United States than just the health care system. Americans are more ethnically diverse. They eat different food. They are fatter. Perhaps most important, they used to be exceptionally heavy smokers. For four decades, until the mid-1980s, per-capita cigarette consumption was higher in the United States (particularly among women) than anywhere else in the developed world. Dr. Preston and other researchers have calculated that if deaths due to smoking were excluded, the United States would rise to the top half of the longevity rankings for developed countries.

As it is, the longevity gap starts at birth and persists through middle age, but then it eventually disappears. If you reach 80 in the United States, your life expectancy is longer than in most other developed countries. The United States is apparently doing something right for its aging population, but what?

One frequent answer has been Medicare. Its universal coverage for people over 65 has often been credited with shrinking the longevity gap between the United States and other developed countries.

But when Dr. Preston and a Penn colleague, Jessica Y. Ho, looked at mortality rates in 1965, before Medicare went into effect, they found an even more pronounced version of today's pattern: middle-aged people died much more often in the United States than in other developed countries, but the longevity gap shrunk with age even faster than today. In that pre-Medicare era, an American who reached 75 could expect to live longer than most people elsewhere.

Besides smoking, there could be lots of other reasons that Americans are especially unhealthy in middle age. But Dr. Preston says he saw no evidence for the much-quoted estimates that poor health care is responsible for more preventable deaths in the United States than in other developed countries. (Go to for details.)

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