The health of nations

The report I want to tell you about today reminds me of the pilot episode of the HBO drama The Newsroom. (A new favorite of mine.)

In it, the main character, Will McAvoy, is asked why he thinks America is the greatest country in the world. After trying desperately not to answer the question, he proceeds to list the ways in which we lag behind every other Western country in every major statistic.

Ultimately, he concludes that we aren’t the greatest country in the world. But we once were. And we could be again.

Anyway, that’s not my point to make… but the moral of the story is that numbers don’t lie. That’s especially true where this nation’s health is concerned. And I feel that it’s an important part of my job to make sure that people are aware of that fact.

I know I talk about obesity statistics all the time. But today, I want to talk about the state of our nation’s overall health.

According to a recent report that analyzed data from 34 countries, we’re better off today than we were back in 1990. Our average life expectancy is up three years from 75.2 in 1990 to 78.2 in 2010.

But that’s where the good news ends.

We spend more money on healthcare than any other country. But we don’t have universal health coverage to show for it. And we’re far behind other wealthy nations when it comes to both health outcomes and life expectancy.

And the stark inequality of care that continues to divide the country’s different socioeconomic and ethnic groups only makes matters worse.

The researchers’ goal was to identify the conditions and risk factors that are dragging our nation’s health down the most–and to document how they’ve changed over time. And the results aren’t particularly surprising.

The biggest drains on this country’s collective lifespan are heart disease, lung cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and road injury. But the study period also saw increases in “years of life lost” from Alzheimer’s disease, drug use, chronic kidney disease, kidney cancer, and accidental falls.

Most telling is the fact that chronic disease and disability add up to almost half of the entire U.S. health burden. (Hello, inflammation!) The culprits? Poor diet, tobacco smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and blood sugar, and physical inactivity.

Needless to say, any gains we’ve made in healthcare are far outpaced by those of other equally prosperous countries.

In fact, compared to the other 34 nations in this study, we rank 27th in age-standardized death rate–that’s down from 18th. We rank 28th in years of life lost–down from 23rd. We rank 5th for years lost to disability–up from 6th. And we rank 27th for life expectancy at birth–down from 20th place in 1990.

I don’t really care if this is an “overall” improvement. These are not encouraging numbers. And they come at a very high price, in every sense of the word.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s absolutely inexcusable for a country with our means to be wasting away like this.

There are lots of things I’d personally like to see the U.S. government do to respond to this problem. It could rethink the Farm Bill and take a stand against Big Soda and Big Agriculture, for starters.

But at the end of the day, the American government is by the people, for the people. And true change begins with you.

In desperate times like these, getting healthy–and staying that way–is tantamount to civic duty. It’s as simple as that.

The State of US Health, 1990-2010: Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors. JAMA. 2013 Jul 10.