A Little Older, A Little Sicker

link to article A Little Older, A Little Sicker

According to a new survey, Americans are living longer (not much), but not because we’re healthier. Here are some quotes from an NBC article:

Americans may be living longer and even exercising a little more, but we really are not much healthier than we were 10 years ago and we are still far behind other rich countries when it comes to our health, researchers said Wednesday.

Journalists love to point out how we lag behind other rich countries. More on that later.

The biggest survey of U.S. health in 15 years breaks down death, disease and disability county by county – and makes some very unflattering comparisons to other countries. It’s a big, comprehensive dive into what kills us and what makes us sick.

Journalists love to point out how we lag behind other countries. Wait … I already said that. Well, the journalist felt compelled to mention how we lag behind other countries twice in two successive paragraphs, so we’re even.

It finds that how healthy you are depends on where you live.

No, it depends on what kind of person you are: health-conscious or not health-conscious.

If you live in a rich area like San Francisco, Colorado or the suburbs of Washington D.C., you’re likely as healthy as the Swiss or Japanese. If you live in Appalachia or the rural South, you’re likely to be as unhealthy as people in Algeria or Bangladesh.

Hmmm, I’m pretty healthy. If I move to Appalachia, will my health decline? If an obese diabetic from Appalachia moves to San Francisco, will his health improve? I think not. All we’re seeing here is that San Francisco and the suburbs of Washington D.C. are damned expensive places to live. That means mostly rich people live there, and rich people tend to be more health-conscious. They’re not healthier because they live in “rich areas.”

Our biggest enemies are our own bad habits – poor diet, smoking and obesity. They’re far more dangerous to our health than pollution or risks from radiation.

Our own bad habits are also the reason we’re lagging behind other countries. Again, more on that later.

But Americans lost ground compared to people living in other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “Among 34 OECD countries between 1990 and 2010, the U.S rank for the age-standardized death rate changed from 18th to 27th,” Murray’s team wrote.

Wait for it …

“The United States spends more than the rest of the world on health care and leads the world in the quality and quantity of its health research, but that doesn’t add up to better health outcomes,” Murray said in a statement.

I knew that was coming.  Here’s a similar quote from an article in The Washington Post:

What surprised Murray and his team was that despite increased consciousness about disparities and per capita spending on health care that is at least 50 percent higher than European countries, the United States is falling farther behind them with each passing year.

Whenever I read or hear something along the lines of “The U.S. spends more on health care than any other country — and yet we have worse health outcomes!” as if that’s shocking news, it’s a head-bang-on-desk moment for me. Why? Well, if you read any of these statements in the news, would you be shocked?

The U.S. spends more on pianos than any other country in the world – and yet we have more piano players!

The U.S. spends more on cars than any other country in the world – and yet we have more auto accidents!

The U.S. spends more on food than any other country in the world – and yet we eat more!

I think you get the idea. We don’t have an unhealthy population in spite of spending more on health care.  We spend a lot on health care because we have an unhealthy population.  Healthy populations don’t rack up big health-care bills.

The researchers partly blame obesity for our health woes, but I believe rising obesity rates are mostly a symptom of the real problem: skyrocketing rates of diabetes. Among the “rich” developed countries, the U.S. has the highest rate of diabetes. (I put “rich” in quotes because I don’t believe a country that’s $16 trillion in debt and pays its bills by borrowing another $1 trillion annually is actually rich anymore. But we still spend like we’re rich, so bear with me.) About one-quarter of our senior citizens have diabetes. When people get sick and you treat them (and treat them and treat them and treat them), you get medical bills.

Older Americans today are sicker than previous generations of older Americans. (See this postfor more on that.)  In spite of that, they’re living longer largely because as a “rich” country with advanced medical technology, we make heroic efforts to extend their lives.  Those heroic efforts produce big medical bills. According to one study I looked up, 32% of all Medicare expenditures are for “end of life” medical care — i.e.,  treating old people who die within the next two years. On average, they’re treated by 10 different doctors during those last two years. Or as the Wall Street Journal noted:

Medicare patients rack up disproportionate costs in the final year of life. In 2009, 6.6% of the people who received hospital care died. Those 1.6 million people accounted for 22.3% of total hospital expenditures, the Journal’s analysis shows.

I’m not suggesting we tell old people who are sick to go away and die. I’m suggesting that the country can’t survive the financial burden resulting from the bad foods our government subsidizes and the bad diet our government recommends. We can’t afford to make people ill and then pay for every procedure imaginable to treat their many illnesses. Something’s got to change.

But never fear. This latest report on illness and longevity is inspiring some much-needed action:

First Lady Michelle Obama said the report shows communities and policymakers need to help Americans eat better. “We’re going to be working with food companies and restaurants who are offering more healthy options to families so that when they go into a restaurant they have some decent choices,” she said at an event at the White House for her “Let’s Move” campaign.

Awesome.  The government’s going to step in and help Americans eat better.

Don’t you feel more optimistic already?


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