FinancePolicy & Law

Health of Americans Ranks Worst Among High-Income Countries

2 Mins read

Well, this sure is depressing.

Well, this sure is depressing.

Amid all the news about more Americans gaining health insurance, the to-do over New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s war on super-sized sugary drinks, and efforts to provide healthier school lunches, there’s this:

The U.S. ranks at or near the bottom in nine key areas of health: infant mortality and low birth weight; injuries and homicides; teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections; prevalence of HIV and AIDS; drug-related deaths; obesity and diabetes; heart disease; chronic lung disease; and disability, according to a recent report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine.

medicines-530x300Researchers said that Americans generally die sooner and have higher rates of disease and injury than people in other high-income countries. This is true across all age ranges from 0-75 and even among those considered more “well off” – with health insurance, higher education levels, higher incomes and healthier lifestyles. Nearly two-thirds of the difference in life expectancy between males in the U.S. and these other countries can be attributed to deaths before age 50.

This is the first time a comprehensive comparison of multiple diseases, injuries, and behaviors across the entire life span between the U.S. and other peer nations has been made. The 16 peer countries in the report include Australia, Canada, Japan, and most western European countries.

“Americans are dying and suffering at rates that we know are unnecessary because people in other high-income countries are living longer lives and enjoying better health. What concerns our panel is why, for decades, we have been slipping behind,” said Steven H. Woolf, professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University and chair of the committee that wrote the report, in a statement.

American infants, children and teens are disproportionately affected, report authors said. For decades, the U.S. has had the highest infant mortality rate of any high-income country, and has ranked low on premature birth and the proportion of children who live to age 5.  U.S. adolescents have higher rates of death from traffic accidents and homicide, the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, and are more likely to acquire sexually transmitted infections.  Woolfe called these findings “tragic.”

On the positive side, After age 75, Americans live longer than the comparison groups, die less frequently from cancer or stroke, control blood pressure and cholesterol better, and smoke less.

The U.S. consistently spends more per capita on health care than any other Western nation – an average of just over $8,300 in 2010. That’s more than double that of Great Britain, Japan, or New Zealand – countries with universal health coverage. Check out this interactive map to see how the U.S. does against other countries.


It’s not just one factor, say the researchers. Unhealthy lifestyles, like high-fat diets leading to obesity is one cause. Income disparities, high levels of poverty and lower education levels also contribute to the gap. However, report authors are quick to point out that even when controlling for variables in income, race, and education, the United States still fares far worse than other prosperous nations.

Intense outreach and education about health disparities between the United States and other nations should be a priority, the report concluded. Other recommendations include more diligent efforts to achieve national health objectives and creating a more comprehensive national dialogue about the health status of Americans.

“If we fail to act, the disadvantage will continue to worsen and our children will face shorter lives and greater rates of illness than their peers in other rich nations,” Woolf said.

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