The United States spends more on health care than any other nation in the developed world — but we’re not getting much bang for our buck. Even though other wealthy nations are figuring out how to translate health care dollars into longer lives, all of the money that the U.S. spends in this area isn’t doing much to extend Americans’ life expectancy.
According to a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health, the U.S. ranks among the worst in the developed world when it comes to linking financial investment to human longevity. In Germany, for example, every additional $100 spent on health care results in four additional months of life on average. But the same amount of money results in just half a month of life in the U.S.:
Jody Heymann, the dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and one of the study’s authors, told the Atlantic that the disparity is likely driven by the fact that the United States doesn’t invest as much in preventative care as some of the other nations do. “We are doing little to make sure people have opportunities for physical activity, a decent diet — the things that would help with their risk of developing cancer and diabetes,” Heymann explained. So the U.S. ends up spending a lot of money to treat costly diseases rather than working to prevent them in the first place.
Heymann’s findings echo previous studies that have also found Americans are dying earlier than their counterparts in other nations, even after controlling for race and class, although hers is one of the first to peg that data to health spending.
And life expectancy can actually be a deceptive measure of health. Baby Boomers are living longer than their parents did, but they’re also living sicker, largely because of the public health burden resulting from the obesity epidemic. When considering other wellness indicators — like heart disease, stroke, mental illness, substance abuse, traffic accidents, and suicides — Americans are lagging far behind the people who live in other wealthy nations, despite paying much more for their medical care.
Nonetheless, the nation is beginning to show some signs of slow progress in these areas. Health spending has slowed dramatically over the past three years, partly because of changes spurred by the Affordable Care Act. Meanwhile, Americans are inching their way toward healthier lifestyles, and the obesity rate is finally leveling off.