Wealthy, but not healthy nor wise

You may not know it, but in 1990, the U.S. government officially set out to increase our lifespans…no matter the cost or the toll. Of course, unfortunately, they never achieved that goal–at least relative to other nations. According to a new report from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, the U.S. has higher death rates than 16 other industrialized nations.

In fact, we still die before our peers in Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom!

So, the government failed to keep us alive longer…but it sure did cost us nonetheless!

The business about artificially extending your lifespan began more than 20 years ago…

You see, back in 1990, the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion asked me to help set public health goals for the new millennium, called “Healthy People 2000.” At the time, this office was best known for publishing the periodic Surgeon Generals Reports. I should have known we were heading upriver without a paddle, based on past experience.

To prepare for the new millennium, the office wanted to set “flagship” goals for Americans’ health based on statistical models. First, they wanted to extend the number of years of American longevity to some arbitrary number.  

Second, they wanted to extend the number of years of healthy life to another arbitrary number.  But this number was about a dozen years earlier than the desired longevity.

So, basically, they wanted you to live longer, no matter the cost. Literally and figuratively. You might have to take a dozen drugs, sit in your house all day, and use oxygen from a tank…but they’d keep you alive another 12 years one way or another! Alive, by their standards, anyway.

At the time, I warned them that the headline would say: “Government Approves Americans Spending Last 12 Years of Life Ill and Disabled.”

But they didn’t want to listen…

So, today, America spends far more on healthcare than any other country. Plus, we spend massive amounts of money to manage chronic disease “risk factors.”

In fact, entire industries have risen up around reducing cholesterol, quitting smoking, reducing “body mass” or BMI, and eliminating salt, fat and meat. Today, the government-industrial-medical complex tries to micromanage every aspect of your health.

And, as a result, more Americans do have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and lower smoking rates. We also have higher cancer survival rates than citizens of other nations. All our “numbers” look great on paper.

But has it made us any healthier? And has it made us live any longer or better?

Apparently not.

In the new report, the U.S. ranks near the bottom in nine key areas. We have the highest prevalence of obesity and diabetes. We also have the highest mortality rate from lung disease. And we have the second-highest death rate from heart disease, despite all the time and money thrown at lowering cholesterol.

The lung disease issue is a real paradox. We have higher rates of lung disease, despite lower smoking rates, compared to similar countries. If there is some hidden explanation for increases in lung disease other than smoking, we will never know it–given the government’s policies for the past quarter-century. 

And if quitting smoking is the answer for good health–why aren’t the U.S. heart disease rates lower, instead of the second highest?

We certainly don’t smoke as much as the French do. And France has the third lowest heart disease rates in the world.

The French also drink more wine and eat more higher-fat foods than Americans do. Yes, folks, the French Paradox is alive and kicking. It is a scientific fact–now observed in other countries as well–despite the protestations of a recent reader.

According to the new report, among these countries, we also have more violent deaths and homicides, especially among adolescents. We have the highest rate of adolescent pregnancies, the highest incidence of AIDS, and the most alcohol- and drug-related deaths.  We even have more deaths from car crashes than all the Germans speeding down the autobahns!

The list goes on and on.

Of course, some of these problems exceed the limits of medicine or healthcare. They may have more to do with self-discipline. And ethical, moral, and social values, as well as spiritual guidance and practices.

But it all plays a part. Across the board, we die younger than just about all of our wealthy peers.

Before I send you off on your day with only that thought, here is some comforting news…

If you can make it to age 75, your chances of living longer beat that of older people in these other nations. Your biggest challenge is to survive your first 50 years.

In fact, experts blame deaths before age 50 for two-thirds of these longevity decrements for men. And for one-third of the decrements for women. And we do have among the worst infant mortality rates of all the nations listed in the new report. This pulls our numbers down dramatically. Because the earlier that a mortality occurs, the greater the impact on life expectancy in a population.

Perhaps stress explains a lot of these statistical findings. Americans are stressed. No doubt about it. And some still wag a sanctimonious, politically-correct finger at “risky” behaviors that eliminate stress, such as moderate alcohol consumption. And how dare you actually enjoy eating some foods with higher fat, such as cheese and meat?

But the French don’t have a problem with enjoying a glass of wine with cheese. Or taking a six-week vacation. Perhaps stress is the great leveler. We have more of it. They have less of it. And perhaps it explains why other countries are healthier than the U.S. 

All the statistics point to a less stressful lifestyle–versus more healthcare–as the key to living a healthier and happier life.

Benjamin Franklin admonished in Poor Richard’s Almanac “early to bed and early to rise makes a man (sic) healthy, wealthy and wise.” 

The effects of late to bed and early to rise have made Americans wealthy (for a time). But not healthy. Nor, apparently, any the wiser. 

If you want to make it to that magic number, have a glass of wine with dinner and hit the sheets a little earlier than usual. You may be more likely to make it to 75 and beyond!