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OPINION: We're running out of excuses for U.S. health, longevity issues

Columbus Ledger-Enquirer - 12/29/2017

Dec. 28--An Orwellian rewriting of the language of clinical information that the federal government reportedly imposed on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention turns out to have been somewhat exaggerated (or maybe just premature), as noted in a recent humorous column by Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post.

But it's not hard to see why a lot of powerful people who decide U.S. public policy might be touchy about the Atlanta-based public health agency's latest report on the state of American public health -- much if not most of it having to do with American public health policy.

As summarized this week by the Post and other U.S. news organizations, the life expectancy of Americans is now shorter than that of other affluent nations, and the gap is growing.

Less than 40 years ago, the CDC reports, an American baby could be expected to live, on average, almost 74 years, as opposed to an average of 72.3 years for babies born in the other 34 nations in the relatively wealthy (and mostly Western) Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The edge is ours no longer. Health advances increased the average American life expectancy to not quite 79 years by 2015 -- good news by any measure -- while the overall OECD average had risen to 81. And in 2016, life expectancy for Americans actually fell for the second straight year -- something that hasn't happened, CDC notes, in more than 50 years.

We remain one of the most affluent nations on earth. But somehow, for whatever reasons, we're not using that economic advantage to care of ourselves and each other.

A few factors cited in the CDC report:

The quality of health care in the U.S. is excellent; access to it isn't. (This one we know all too well.) Yet Americans spend more -- by far, in the thousands -- per capita on health care than any other nation. We spend relatively little on prenatal and early childhood care, and are the only country in the OECD without mandatory paid sick leave and maternity leave. Income inequality is among the highest of all developed nations.

And of course, many of our health woes are about private rather than public choices. Obesity is a prevalent health problem of both affluence and poverty, and there's much of both here. Violence continues to be especially troublesome: According to a 2016 study, homicide rates in the United States were seven times higher than in other affluent countries; narrowed down to gun homicides, the rate is more than 25 times higher. But whatever the weapon, the Post summarized, "Americans are still more likely to be murdered than people in nearly any other rich nations."

Regardless of whether the health problems behind these troublesome stats are personal or policy issues, they are all, in a collective sense, self-inflicted. They are cold facts and harsh realities, and we've been arguing -- forever, it seems -- over what to do about them. How's that working out?


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