A new study has found that far fewer Americans would be dying every year if we had the comparative mortality rates of our peer European nations, adjusted for age and gender. The study shines a light on something that experts have long known but are still trying to understand: the relatively short life expectancy of Americans. It’s an ugly trend that’s only getting worse, as the most recent analysis found that “mortality conditions in the U.S. have worsened significantly since 2000.”
No wealthy country spends more money on healthcare than the U.S., but Americans still have relatively low life expectancy and high mortality rates when compared to nations of similar economic means. The new study points to a slew of reasons for this that include gun violence, obesity, the opioid crisis, car collisions and a high infant mortality rate. While the U.S. has some of the best hospitals and healthcare in the world, the study says employment-based medical insurance simply does not provide equal access to those world-class healthcare systems for all Americans, a problem deeply exacerbated by racial inequality, the wealth gap and the rural-urban divide.
For the findings, the researchers combined the mortality rates of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, England and Wales, and then adjusted them for gender and race in the U.S., using that data to estimate how many fewer deaths there would have been in the U.S. under such conditions in 2000, 2010 and 2017. Their findings are striking, suggesting that 400,000 fewer Americans would have died in the U.S. in 2017 alone. That year, Americans between the ages of 30 and 34 were three times more likely to die than their European peers, a stunning stat that can likely be attributed to a combination of drug overdoses and gun violence. You can read the full study here.
Jessica Ho, an assistant professor of gerontology, sociology and spatial sciences at the University of Southern California, told The Guardian there is no one reason Americans experience such dramatically higher mortality rates. Instead, she said, various factors impact and exacerbate each other, leading to a single complex and systemic issue. “Americans … often practice poor health behaviors, and this may interact with structural conditions like patchwork access to health care to produce worse outcomes,” she said. “For example, high rates of homicide are related to inequality and residential segregation; high rates of firearm-related deaths are influenced by both behavioral factors and the greater availability of guns in the U.S.”
The study was co-conducted by Dr. Yana Vierboom, a researcher at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, and Samuel Preston, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. They did find one bright spot. In terms of mortality rates among people over 85, America ranks among the very lowest in the world, suggesting a positive impact of U.S. spending on elder care.
This could spell trouble for the global future, since the U.S. tends to set a lot of trends on this front. If other nations start following the U.S. pattern of opioid abuse, gun violence and similar destructive cultural factors, we could see an international decline in life expectancy. “Historically, the U.S. was the first to start smoking at really high rates and then the rest of the world caught up,” Vierboom told the Guardian. “That seems to be happening with drug use, obesity etc. …[the US] is like a sad trendsetter.”