Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Health Care Myth: Americans Don't Live as Long as Others Because of Our Health Care System

John Tierney has a good column on why Americans don't live as long as the Europeans...and it's not necessarily due to our health care system.

This longevity gap, Dr. Preston says, 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. 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.

I've long argued that the longevity gap arguments are more ideological than scientific. When you point out that Americans are far more heterogeneous than Europeans, that they travel much greater distances more frequently (thereby being susceptible to car accidents more than Europeans), that we consume more and are fatter, the naysayers complain that we should "do something" about that, too. Maybe "fat taxes" on sodas, chips or sugary desserts would do the trick. But I have news for them; the main reason Americans are fatter isn't just about food consumption. It's about exercise. We are more sedentary and don't work as our agrarian forefathers did. I suspect we'll soon see legislation mandating we all workout, if Democrats have their way.