Study: Americans would live longest but for rates of smoking and obesity

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On average Americans live several years fewer than people in a number of other developed countries like France and Japan. This may seem puzzling as Americans spend more on health care, and American patients do, in fact, live longer following diagnosis of cancer and a number of other serious diseases.

Well, a report from the National Research Council released yesterday presents a theory why this might be. According to the study authors, Americans live shorter lives because of our greater propensity for obesity and our higher previous rates of smoking. The researchers predict that if U.S. obesity rates dip as our smoking rates have declined, then the combined effect will increase U.S. life expectancy relative to that seen in other developed nations. The researchers particularly anticipate a rise in life expectancy among American men, whose smoking rates have dropped markedly over the last twenty years. Because women’s smoking in the U.S. peaked later and started to go down later, they expect that the effect on women’s life expectancy will appear more gradually.

The authors warn, however, that if obesity rates continue to rise that American life expectancy will decline.

There are, however, many confounding factors for all the data and predictions presented. ACSH’s Dr. Josh Bloom points out that one Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) study found that if adjustments were made for the higher accident and homicide rates in the U.S. that life expectancy was the highest in the world. He comments: “This is not a simple problem. It may be politically expedient to draw simple conclusions in order to point out how ‘flawed’ the American health care system is, or how fat we’ve become, but the real situation is more complex.”