Despite statistics, US life expectancy high (updated)

As the saying has it, "there are lies, there are damned lies and then there are statistics." Well ok, maybe it is not the statistics that lie but the interpreters of those statistics. And if the interpreters don't actually lie about the statistics oftentimes they just don't understand them or don't place them in context.

For instance, in the ongoing debate about health care in the U.S., critics have claimed the lack of government health insurance is responsible for the relatively low life expectancy of citizens in this country compared with other industrialized countries. Not so according to demographer Dr. Samuel H. Preston as reported by John Tierney in the NY Times. Placing the statistics in context Preston concludes there is

no evidence that America's health care system is to blame for the longevity gap between it and other industrialized countries. In fact, he concludes, the American system in many ways provides superior treatment even when uninsured Americans are included in the analysis.

"The U.S. actually does a pretty good job of identifying and treating the major diseases," says Dr. Preston, a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania who is among the leading experts on mortality rates from disease. "The international comparisons don't show we're in dire straits."

Then what causes the longevity gap? According to Preston it

is primarily due to the relatively high rates of sickness and death among middle-aged Americans, chiefly from heart disease and cancer. Many of those deaths have been attributed to the health care system, an especially convenient target for those who favor a European alternative.

But there are many more differences between Europe and the United States than just the health care system. Americans are more ethnically diverse. They eat different food. They are fatter.

One important reason for Americans' lower life span is something the citizens have been told time and time again not to do but many persist. Smoking.

Perhaps most important, they used to be exceptionally heavy smokers. For four decades, until the mid-1980s, per-capita cigarette consumption was higher in the United States (particularly among women) than anywhere else in the developed world. Dr. Preston and other researchers have calculated that if deaths due to smoking were excluded, the United States would rise to the top half of the longevity rankings for developed countries.

So, if Americans live common sense healthy lives--don't, or stop, smoking, lose weight, exercise more--then

If you reach 80 in the United States, your life expectancy is longer than in most other developed countries.

(And no, this post isn't meant to be a scold; just a report on the statistics. In context.)

"But" critics of the U.S. system retort, "80 year olds have been beneficiaries of Medicare for 15 years, a government medical insurance program."

Preston researched that also and discovered that prior to Medicare the longetevity gap shrunk with age even faster than today.

Why? Admitting our system's flaws, Preston and his research colleague concluded that Americans were more likely to practice preventive medicine like cancer screenings and once detected, they were more likely to live 5 years.

So, keeping my non statistical promise, no admonitions to stop smoking, lose weight and all that other healthy stuff; no reassurances that life is just as pleasant, or maybe even more so, after this is accomplished. Your choice. But be reassured that if you live in the U.S. and survive middle age, statistically speaking, in context, you have a long life ahead most probably thanks to the U.S. health care system with all its admitted flaws. Enjoy.


Reader William Allen makes a good point:

There is no mention of the fact that the US is almost the only nation that counts every birth, while vitrually all other countries do not count any pre-mature and/or under weight births. This alone makes a hugh statistical difference, because of every pre-mature that dies adds what amounts to a ZERO to the average!