Really? Korean Women Live Longer Than U.S. Women?

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Many of us probably think most Americans are living longer these days. We think our country is doing great as far as longevity goes. Unfortunately, recent research shows, not so much. A study published in the prestigious journal Lancet describes some truths we may not know about longevity in the U.S. as compared with 35 other developed countries. The study, based on comprehensive data including that from the World Health Organization predicts that South Korean women will live to 91 by 2030.  The study also predicts that Americans will continue to have one of the lowest life expectancies of developed countries. It suggests that American women will live only to 83, on average a fall to 27th out of 35 countries, from their current ranking of 25th and that life expectancy for men will fall from 26th among those developed countries from their current rank of 23d. Men are predicted to live just to 80 in the U.S. by 2030. In short, life expectancy is not getting longer here by comparison with some other places.

How do the researchers account for the richest country in the world having such low life expectancy as compared with countries like South Korea and Spain? There are many factors, but the most important conclusions are drawn from comparisons about health care. South Korea, as well as the other countries studied, which include France, Japan, Switzerland and Spain all have comprehensive health care for their entire populations. By contrast, we do not. This results in higher rates of heart disease, cancer and obesity and worse rates of infant mortality. It is what the researchers refer to as “insufficient and inequitable health care”.

One basic benefit of comprehensive health care for everyone is that preventive screening is available to all.  For example, we know that heart disease is the biggest killer in the U.S., the number one cause of death. If essential preventive screening for all is at no out of pocket cost, most people will get it at an annual physical exam. At that time, doctors can pick up warning signs of things like high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, elevated cholesterol and treat all of these things. Untreated, any one of these conditions can ultimately lead to heart failure. Again, if every person can see a doctor with the onset of chest pain or another symptom of heart attack without having to pay a high cost, they are likely to go and get checked. If not, they may die of an untreated and undiagnosed condition because a doctor’s visit costs too much.

While the health care debate rages in the U.S., we are falling behind 26 other developed countries in our own life expectancies. No matter what becomes of a health care plan, reform, revision, or fix of anything in place or proposed, it is clear that we need comprehensive healthcare for everyone. If not, worldwide and very reliable research tells us that we will not live as long. Of course, other factors besides healthcare do play a role in longevity. The women in South Korea who have a life expectancy approaching 91 have lower obesity rates, smoke less and have other healthy lifestyle factors going for them. Those are things the individual can control. On the other hand, our Congress has control over the decisions about our nation’s health care programs.

Do you want to live to be 100? It’s time to communicate with your elected representatives. We need the health care essentials to be reachable for every person who believes that preventive care will help you live longer. No one should remain quiet and wait to see what happens. It is already problematic that healthcare is “insufficient and inequitable”.  We can speak out to our senators and representatives to keep the current longevity trajectory from getting even worse. Every voice counts, so make yours heard. (Can we hear each other better without the screaming?) My personal take is that a courteous and dignified approach to this issue of how to speak out works best. Whatever your opinion on healthcare may be, say it out loud, in email or in writing. Be relentless, be persuasive and be polite.

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