How Bad Health Has Become A Side Effect Of The American Dream

by Christine Leinbach

America has received some terrible report cards over the last couple of years, and if you happen to stumble upon them, you might feel like a parent whose kid forged your signature.

Studies have continued to reveal that our overall health lags behind the rest of the developed world, and by no small margin.

Based on our bigger is better, “Would you like fries with that?” culture, it may not come as a surprise that America doesn't exactly have the number one life expectancy. Not only do we die younger than our global peers, we also experience significantly worse health over the course of our lives, a disadvantage that starts the day we are born, literally.

Raise your hand if you are aware that a baby born in the US is more likely to die on the first day of its life, than a baby born in any one of 68 other countries (including Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Peru). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg…

Let’s start with some good news.

Overall, America’s population health has improved over the last few decades. Life expectancy for both sexes combined is up from 75.2 years in 1990 to 78.2 years in 2010. Healthy life expectancy, which takes into account length of life, as well as levels of health and ill health experienced at different ages, is also up from 65.8 years in 1990 to 68.1 years in 2010.

And yet, despite recent legislation like the Affordable Care Act and campaigns like Michelle Obama’s famed, “Let’s Move,” our country is still facing a health crisis of great magnitude.

But I thought you said we were progressing?

Simply put, we aren’t progressing fast enough. We spend by far the most out of any other nation on healthcare costs per person. However, in almost every measure of overall population health, we continue to underperform when compared to the rest of the industrialized world.

For example, among the 34 countries measured in the study that compared data from 1990 to 2010, the age-standardized US ranking for life expectancy at birth slipped from 20th to 27th. Healthy life expectancy fell from 14th to 26th, death rate from 18th to 27th and YLL rate (years of life lost due to premature death) from 23rd to 28th.

Are you depressed, yet?

America falls short in multiple categories, including obesity and diabetes, heart disease, injuries and homicides, teen pregnancy and STIs, HIV and AIDS, drug-related deaths and chronic lung disease.

I Don’t Understand -- What’s Wrong With Us?

The studies point to numerous causes that might be thwarting our progress, like poverty, diet (read: obesity) and lack of public awareness. And then there’s the fact that for a long time, many Americans didn’t even have access to healthcare (the rest of the developed world was much quicker to jump on the universal healthcare bandwagon).

But in my opinion, these are merely symptoms; if you want to talk about a cause, look no further than the American Dream.

When you think about it, good health is almost the antithesis of the American Dream. From a young age, we are taught to value freedom and the pursuit of happiness almost above all else; whereas, good population health is almost 100 percent based on social responsibility and delayed gratification.

The American Dream also inherently prioritizes the success of the individual over the success of the group; whereas, population health is, statistically, much easier to achieve collectively.

From a young age, we are taught that in order to get ahead, we need to work harder and work longer. So we put in the hours, skimp on sleep and walk through life with blinders on, unconcerned with anything except achieving and acquiring. Eyes on the prize and our health -- no less the health of those around us -- is not even on our radar.

Here’s The Thing

The fact that America is not a beacon of health is by no means breaking news. But it is bad news, and for some reason, America seems wholly unconcerned. Unless it's about Ebola (not to be insensitive, but we currently have bigger problems than Ebola), nobody cares.

I can't help but feel that this wouldn't be the case if we truly realized the implications (social, economic and otherwise) of being a country that suffers from poor health.

For example, with only the 26th best healthy life expectancy, how can we expect our work force to be as capable as that of other nations? With our disproportionate spending on healthcare, how can we expect our economy to be as strong as that of other nations?

The real problem, though, is that these rates, numbers and statistics equate to human lives lost.

The summary of the IOM study put it perfectly:

The tragedy is not that the United States is losing a contest with other countries, but that Americans are dying and suffering from illness and injury at rates that are demonstrably unnecessary.

Let’s all agree it’s time to reverse the trend.