The American way of death

Sam Smith, 2004  America’s growing hypochondria – spurred by government, health industry, and the media – takes another leap as the feds declare nearly twice as many people as previously to have excessive blood pressure. Scaring people about their health is one of the country’s most profitable industries, but it also drives up health costs something fierce. Here are a few facts, based on recent government statistics, to bear in mind when reading such stories:

– The average life span of an American is 28 years longer than a century ago.

– 75% of that improvement occurred between 1900 and 1950, the remaining 25% has been fairly equally distributed over the last 50 years. Further, most of the improvement has occurred at an earlier age. For a 65 year old white male, for example, life span has only increased five years in the past century.

In short, medicine has done a fine job of improving America’s longevity but it is slowing down. The hyping of health problems – and declaring tens of millions of people to be ill or health-impaired for one reason or another – reflects far more a cultural and commercial choice rather than a health one. And it is a choice far healthier for drug companies than for citizens.

For example, in a study not well covered in the American media (perhaps because it challenges our health myths), WHO in 2000 ranked countries by “healthy life expectancy,” based on the number of years lived in what might called “full health” – without disability or crippling illnesses. WHO reported:

“Japanese have the longest healthy life expectancy of 74.5 years among 191 countries, versus less than 26 years for the lowest-ranking country of Sierra Leone. . . The rest of the top 10 nations are Australia, 73.2 years; France, 73.1; Sweden, 73.0; Spain, 72.8; Italy, 72.7; Greece, 72.5; Switzerland, 72.5; Monaco, 72.4; and Andorra, 72.3. . .

“The United States rated 24th under this system, or an average of 70.0 years of healthy life for babies born in 1999. . . “The position of the United States is one of the major surprises of the new rating system,” says Christopher Murray, M.D., Ph.D., Director of WHO’s Global Program on Evidence for Health Policy. “Basically, you die earlier and spend more time disabled if you’re an American rather than a member of most other advanced countries.”

The fascinating thing about this is that among the top-rated countries are ones like France who citizens take a decidedly less paranoiac view of health issues than Americans who are trained to worry about their every breath. But then what can you expect in a country where the vice president argues his fitness for public office by announcing that a doctor “watches me very carefully 24 hours a day?”

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