The National Research Council and Institute of Medicine oversaw a study recently that shows that Americans tend to have more accidents and illnesses earlier in life than people in other developed nations. The trend was true particularly among the relatively affluent.
The study did not make it quite so clear that people in the United States are killing themselves young because most of the health problems are preventable. Therefore, something is lacking in terms of discipline among Americans when contrasted to their peers abroad. And it is discipline that is at the heart of the study’s results, at least as they pertain to Americans.
The report, “U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health,” shows that among 16 “peer nations,” America has particularly awful ratings when it comes to nine health areas:
- Infant mortality and low birth weight
- Injuries and homicides
- Adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections
- HIV and AIDS
- Drug-related deaths
- Obesity and diabetes
- Heart disease
- Chronic lung disease
The data has something for almost everyone who has a solution to the American longevity problem. People in the United States literally eat themselves to death, which hands ammunition to diet programs and insurance companies that want to charge the obese extra premiums. Gun control advocates can seize on the “homicide” data. Advocates of more programs to limit smoking, as it causes lung and heart problems, can ask for new restrictions regarding where Americans can smoke and the means to fund plans for smokers that might be further aided to conquer their habits. Public health officials can ask for more support to lessen sexually transmitted diseases.
The fact of the matter is that Americans are already aware of the problems laid out in “U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health.” Generally there is plenty of aid to assist people who want to lead healthier and safer lives. Not a day goes by in which doctors and researchers fail to tell Americans to stop eating so much because a high body mass index causes type 2 diabetes, years of carrying around oxygen tanks because of emphysema and horrible and slow deaths due to congestive heart failure. Americans have tremendous access to fatty foods at grocery stores and fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s (NYSE: MCD), but no one force feeds the obese.
Sexually transmitted diseases can be prevented in a number of ways, most of which do not involve the often unpleasant effects of abstinence. Among them are testing for STDs — which even pornography actors must undergo — or the use of condoms. For some reason, millions of Americans skip both of these. It may be that is less the case in Japan and Europe. Or perhaps people in those countries just do not have sex.
Also, “guns don’t kill people — people do.” Maybe more gun control would help prevent homicides, but many Americans own knives, explosives and objects that can be used for bludgeoning. Anger management and mental health programs might reduce homicides. But the debate of gun control versus better detection of people likely to kill has gone on for years, if not decades, without result.
The results of this report will not get Americans to throw out guns or cigarettes, to eschew fast food or be more careful about sexual habits. Many Americans simply do not care about their health and well-being, no matter what they say. Research and new government policy will not change that.
Douglas A. McIntyre