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A Different Look at U.S. Life Expectancy

June 6, 2011
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Some of the recalcitrant zealots supporting the existing U.S. healthcare system say that U.S. life expectancy is improving, therefore major changes aren’t necessary. Some say that the difference in life expectancy between the U.S. and the rest of the developed world is explained in large part by more premature deaths from homicides and motor vehicle accidents in young people, not by problems in the healthcare system.

A recent study in Health Affairs looked at 15-year life expectancy in adults 45 and 65 years of age: well past the young premature death cohort. They found that in cohorts followed starting from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the relative rank of the U.S. worsened compared to 12 other developed countries, and was near the bottom rankings for both genders in both age cohorts. The authors speculated that higher uninsured rates, expensive healthcare taking resources from other resources such as public health and community environments (bike trails, safe walking pathways, etc.), and the over supply of ologists explain the difference.

As a side note, as much as people like me who criticize the current system by pointing out the backwards relationship between U.S. healthcare spending and life expectancy, I wonder if life expectancy is the best target. Why do we keep trying to extend a normal lifespan if not only the healthcare system, but other public resources such as Social Security and Medicaid payments for nursing homes are taken away from wages? If significant change could ever be implemented, maybe the goal shouldn’t be increased life expectancy, but holding the life expectancy constant while massively reducing costs.

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