U.S. Lags in Life Expectancy Gains

Smoking, obesity, sedentary habits all contributors.

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 By Nathan Seppa, Science News

Despite getting high marks for treating cancer and heart disease, the United States is failing the ultimate test of its health care system, a new study finds, trailing other developed countries in life expectancy gains.

Although life expectancy has edged upward for U.S. men and women in recent decades, several other developed countries have surged ahead in both overall life expectancy and in the expected years of life for people who have reached age 50, according to the 194-page report prepared by a panel of the National Research Council of the National Academies.

When comparing health data from the United States against other high-income nations, the researchers did find some positive signs. The United States ranks very high in cancer screening and survival and in heart attack survival. But this care is expensive: U.S. health care expenditures are roughly double the same costs in the other developed countries.

Despite high health care spending, the overall mental and physical wellness of Americans “is relatively poor,” says study coauthor Samuel Preston, a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Americans are among the most sedentary people, vying with Poland for the dubious status of topping that category, followed by Italy, England and Spain.

Nearly all countries show a decline in smoking, with Denmark the exception. Americans have been among the heaviest smokers in the past, but Japan holds that distinction now. Even so, the damage of past smoking lingers. Deaths attributable to smoking in past decades continue to substantially hurt life expectancy in the United States, Belgium, Hungary, Denmark and Canada. The effects in Japan are just starting to emerge in men.

With the exception of Japan, the obesity epidemic extends throughout the developed world. The United States leads the pack there, followed by Canada, England and Australia. And while the risks of obesity show up in the form of diabetes, stroke and heart disease, the true repercussions of obesity and a sedentary lifestyle in the United States might not yet be apparent, Preston says. “We are possibly setting the stage, in our behavior, for continued [life expectancy] shortfalls,” he concludes.


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