Risky business


Health care is a national obsession, but health isn’t. Americans can expect to die sooner than their counterparts in affluent countries, even while our nation spends the most per person on health care. U.S. citizens also have higher rates of disease and injury.

Those findings by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine aren’t just rants about fast food, laziness, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, or other unhealthy habits. They raise broad questions about social problems, budget priorities, and risky behavior, from food choices to driving habits.

Health care has become enormously costly. But these findings suggest the nation could make significant gains in health without spending more money.

The report concluded that Americans who are 50 years old and under die younger and live in poorer health partly because they’re far more likely to succumb to shootings, auto accidents, and drug addiction. Americans are at greater risk of death or injury than citizens of the same age in Europe, Australia, Canada, and Japan.

America scores worst among its rich-world peers in infant mortality and low birth weight, injuries and homicides, teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, prevalence of HIV and AIDS, drug-related deaths, obesity and diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease, and disability. On the plus side, Americans tend to have lower death rates from stroke and cancer, better control of blood pressure and cholesterol, and lower rates of smoking.

Diet and heredity could explain some differences in health and risk, but so could behavior, climate, the environment, and lifestyle. By changing some of their habits, Americans can live healthier and longer without spending a lot more of their money.