The people who live in the United States are lagging behind their counterparts in other wealthy nations in most measures of health, according to a new study comparing 20 years of data in nearly three dozen countries.
The new study, conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on Wednesday, “is the first comprehensive analysis of disease burden in the United States” in more than 15 years. Researchers identified the leading causes of diseases, injuries, and early deaths for the people living in 35 wealthy nations, including the U.S — and Americans didn’t stack up very well.
“Compared to other high-income countries, U.S. health outcomes are pretty mediocre,” Dr. Christopher Murray, the director of the institute and the leader of the study, said.
Murray and his team of researchers found that the United States’ ranking on nearly every major health measure dropped between 1990 and 2010. Over the course of those two decades, the U.S. fell from number 18 to number 27 in terms of early deaths; from 20 to 27 in terms of life expectancy at birth; and 14 to 26 in terms of healthy life expectancy.
People living in the United States tended to have higher rates of health issues related to bone and joint disease, mental disorders, and substance abuse than the residents in other rich countries. Leading causes of early death in the U.S. included obesity-related health issues — like heart diseases and stroke — as well as suicide and traffic accidents. Americans’ subpar health is driven mainly by poor diets, closely followed by tobacco and obesity.
The United States spends more on health care than any other nation in the developed world, although it’s consistently been proven to have little to no effect on improving the population’s overall health outcomes.
“Despite a level of health expenditures that would have seemed unthinkable a generation ago, the health of the U.S. population has improved only gradually and has fallen behind the pace of progress in many other wealthy nations,” the Institute of Medicine’s Dr. Harvey Fineberg wrote in an editorial accompanying the JAMA study.
Previous research has also documented the widening gap between Americans’ health and the health of those who live in other well-off nations. The gradual decline over time becomes stark when comparing older generations of Americans to younger ones. The Baby Boomer generation — which consists of the 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 — are sicker than their parents were at the same age, despite the significant medical advances in recent decades. Baby Boomers are living longer than their parents did, but their health is worse off, largely because of the public health consequences of the ongoing obesity epidemic.
The report was released by the request of First Lady Michelle Obama, along with two other papers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The first lady, who has focused much of her time in the White House on anti-obesity initiatives, hopes to present the findings to U.S. mayors at an upcoming event as part of her push to encourage better public health policies.