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We're unhealthier than everyone else – and it's our own fault

Americans are far more unhealthy than people in 16 other developed countries, and it’s probably our own fault, experts reported on Wednesday. We die younger from diseases such as obesity and heart disease, and we are far more likely to be murdered and die in car accidents, the researchers at the National Academy of Sciences found.

U.S. culture has a lot to do with it and policymakers need to take action right away to reverse the trend, the experts who wrote the report advised.

"It's a tragedy. Our report found that an equally large, if not larger, disadvantage exists among younger Americans," said Dr. Steven Woolf, chair of the department of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, who chaired the panel.

“I, personally, was stunned by how pervasive the disadvantage was across so many topic areas.”

Experts have complained for years that Americans spend far more on healthcare than people in other rich countries, yet have poorer health. The latest report from the federal government shows Americans spent more than $8,600 a year per person on healthcare – more than twice what countries such as Britain, France and Sweden spend, even with their universal healthcare systems.

Yet we don’t live any longer and we are not even healthier, the report by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine finds. The NRC and IoM, both parts of the National Academies of Science, provide advice to U.S. policymakers. The National Institutes of Health asked them to compare  the health of Americans to people in Canada, Australia, Japan and 13 European countries including Britain, France, Portugal, Italy and Germany.

“The size of the health disadvantage was pretty stunning,” Woolf told reporters in a telephone briefing.

Americans did worse in nine areas: infant mortality; injury and homicide rates; teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases; the AIDS virus; drug abuse; obesity and diabetes; heart disease; lung disease; and disabilities.

And many of these affect young people, not the elderly. Americans are seven times more likely to be murdered than people in the other countries, and 20 times more likely to be killed by a gun.

"I don't think most parents know that, on average, infants, children, and adolescents in the U.S. die younger and have greater rates of illness and injury than youth in other countries,” Woolf said.

“For many years, Americans have been dying at younger ages than people in almost all other high-income countries,” the expert panel wrote.

There were a few bright spots. Americans have lower death rates from cancer, the No. 2 cause of death, and do better at controlling blood pressure and cholesterol. “Americans who reach age 75 can expect to live longer than people in the peer countries,” the report reads.

No one reason accounts for the differences, the experts said. It’s likely a combination of factors, from a U.S. reliance on cars that keeps us from exercising enough, to a love of fast foods, to rejection of being told what to do.

“We have a culture in our country … that cherishes personal autonomy and wants to limit intrusion of government and other entities upon our personal lives,” Woolf said. “Some of those forces may act against the ability to achieve optimal health outcomes.”

It’s clearly not pollution or some other outside factor, said Ana Diez Roux, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, who served on the panel. “It seems to be a whole bunch of things acting together,” she said.

“Something fundamentally is going wrong to cause our country to lose ground against other high-income countries,” Woolf added.

Some of the report’s findings: The United States has a higher infant mortality rate than the other countries, with 32.7 deaths per 100,000. Other countries have infant mortality rates between 15 and 25 deaths per 100,000.

U.S. men live the shortest lives, 75.6 years compared to 79 for Swiss men, who topped the charts. Most of the difference comes in men who die before they reach age 50. U.S. women, who can expect to live on average to just under 81 years, ranked second-last. Japanese women can expect to live to be 86.  

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