Americans in Worse Health Than People in Other High-Income Countries

(January 2013) Americans die sooner and are generally sicker than people in other high-income nations, says a new report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. This U.S. health disadvantage exists at all ages—and is not concentrated only among the poor or racial minorities. Many of these health conditions disproportionately affect children and adolescents.

“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,” said Steven H. Woolf, professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and chair of the panel that wrote the report, U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health, in a press release.

The report compared the United States with 16 peer nations, including Australia, Canada, Japan, and many western European countries. Almost two-thirds of the difference in life expectancy between men in the United States and their peers in other countries was due to deaths before age 50.

The United States has the highest infant mortality rate of any high-income country. And compared to people in these other countries, Americans ranked last or near-last in nine key areas of health: low birth weight; injuries and homicides; teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections; prevalence of HIV and AIDS; drug-related deaths; obesity and diabetes; heart disease; chronic lung disease; and disability.

In some health areas, the United States did outperform its peers: Americans have lower death rates from cancer and stroke, better control of their blood pressure and cholesterol level, and lower rates of smoking.

The oldest Americans fared better than the rest. Those ages 75 and older tended to outlive their counterparts in developed countries.

The report also looked at underlying social values and public policies to understand why the United States, which spends more per capita on health care than any other nation, is outranked by other rich nations on both health outcomes and the conditions that affect health.

Recommendations include comprehensive outreach, and data collection and research. But Woolf cautions that, while research is important, “we should not wait for more data before taking action, because we already know what to do.”