US Healthcare Shortens Life Expectancy

According to the CIA World Factbook, the average American will die long before the average Japanese citizen…and before the average Australian…and before the average Greek and German and Finn and Luxembourgian and…well, you get the point.

In fact, American citizens have a lower life expectancy than their counterparts in 48 other countries.

And according to this study, the usual suspects – obesity, smoking, traffic fatalities and homicide – are not to blame.

The Research

Scientists at Columbia University came to this conclusion by analyzing the behavioral risk factors (obesity, smoking, etc) and the national healthcare spending of 13 nations (Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom).

They took that data and matched it up to each nation’s 15-year survival rates for men and women ages 45 and 65

The Results

While the U.S. has improved it’s 15-year survival rates decade by decade between 1975 and 2005, the researchers discovered that other countries have experienced even greater gains, leading the U.S. to slip in country ranking, even as per capita health care spending in the U.S. increased at more than twice the rate of the comparison countries.

Fifteen-year survival rates for men and women ages 45 and 65 in the US have fallen relative to the other 12 countries over the past 30 years.

When the researchers compared risk factors among the 13 countries, they found very little difference in smoking habits between the U.S. and the comparison countries.

In terms of obesity, the researchers found that, while people in the U.S. are more likely to be obese, this was also the case in 1975, when the U.S. was not so far behind in life expectancy. In fact, even as the comparison countries pulled ahead of the US in terms of survival, the percentage of obese men and women actually grew faster in most of those countries between 1975 and 2005.

Finally, examining homicide and traffic fatalities, the researchers found that they have accounted for a stable share of U.S. deaths over time, and would not account for the significant change in 15-year life expectancy the study identified.


The researchers say that the failure of the U.S. to make greater gains in survival rates with its greater spending on health care may be attributable to flaws in the overall health care system.

They point to the role of unregulated fee-for-service payments and our reliance on specialty care as possible drivers of high spending without commensurate gains in life expectancy.

But don’t despair, there may just be a silver lining to this sad, sad story.

With the adoption of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the American healthcare system just might turn those statistics around and help all Americans liver longer, healthier lives.

Douglas Robb

Doug Robb is a personal trainer, a fitness blogger and author, a competitive athlete, and a student of nutrition and exercise science. He's also the co-founder of the Hive Health Media. Since 2008, Doug has expanded his impact by bringing his real-world experience online via the health & fitness blog – Health Habits.

5 thoughts on “US Healthcare Shortens Life Expectancy

  • October 9, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    This is a nice piece, right up until the end. There is an unfortunate dominant culture that thinks that somehow “free” healthcare is the answer to our problems. Unfortunately, the medical system that many (most?) imagines is going to save us is not nearly as wise and powerful as promoted. Remarkably, even the Journal of the American Medical Association recognizes this. Please, don’t believe me! But look at “Is US health really the best in the world?” from the JAMA, which list medical care as the 3rd leading cause of death in the US!: or read the entire article at: But, you’re certain to argue, “Well of course medical care is dangerous, but think of all the people it saves!” Again, what does the JAMA say about this? See “Exploring the Harmful Effects of Health Care,” where it states that “On balance, the data remain imprecise, and the benefits that US health care currently deliver may not outweigh the aggregate health harm it imparts.” Please, read that sentence again! The entire article can be found at What?! We can’t even tell if the medics are doing more harm than good?! This is coming from medical doctors who also have degrees of Masters of Public Health. How does that fit into the (way too common) notion that what really need is more “free” healthcare? Not to beat a dead horse, but how about this article looking at the effect of a doctor’s strike in Israel. I suppose you’d think that the suffering would be monumental. Think again. This is from the British Medical Journal: My point in all this is not that medical care is necessarily a bad thing. My point is merely that medical care is very dangerous, and that “free health care” is certainly not the answer to of our health concerns.

    • October 11, 2010 at 10:28 pm

      Hadly, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m not sure I completely understand your point about medical being dangerous and “free health care” not being the answer to health concerns?

      • October 12, 2010 at 7:28 am

        Perhaps it’s my typo. The last sentence ought to read “free health care is certainly not the answer to all of our health concerns.” Not that the emergency room isn’t useful if you’re having a heart attack or have an arrow sticking out of your head. The medics save lots of lives, no question. But they also kill lots of people. The care provided is very dangerous. I gave the links if you’d like look up the risks.

  • October 8, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    Healthcare doesn’t shorten peoples life spans, stress does.

  • October 8, 2010 at 8:25 am

    Doug, this study certainly makes intuitive sense. From an epidemiology perspective, factors which effect the population at large have the biggest impact. In the U.S., access to adequate healthcare is still an issue for many Americans.


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