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U.S. Life Expectancy Lags Behind

Researcher Calls Findings 'Alarming,' Says Americans Need Help to Improve Preventable Risk Factors

U.S. Life Expectancy Lag: Explaining It

Mokdad cites four reasons for the lag in life expectancy in the U.S.:

  • Socioeconomic factors such as income and education. More education, he says, translates to a person being more likely to seek and follow medical advice.
  • Access to health care. Some rural areas have shortages of doctors, he says, and many people lack health insurance.
  • Quality of medical care. While some areas have superior care,  many others do not, he says.
  • Preventable risk factors such as obesity and smoking. Mokdad cites this as ''the main reason in this country we are behind."

However, Mokdad says the blame in not doing a better job in preventing obesity and stopping smoking lies in the system, more than in the people.

Behavior change, he says, requires a supportive community. "Many neighborhoods are not safe to walk in," he says, citing traffic hazards as well as crime.

The U.S. needs to take a page from those of other countries, he says, such as Australia, which promotes public health with community programs. "Australia invested in a lot of programs at the community level," he says. The country has a widespread skin cancer prevention campaign, for instance.

More public health programs that reach out to the community are needed in the U.S., he says.

U.S. Life Expectancy: Perspective

Jeffrey P. Koplan, MD, MPH, director of the Global Health Institute at Emory University, prefers to call the new report ''enlightening"  rather than ''alarming." He reviewed the report for WebMD but was not involved in the research.

"Most of us, when it comes to being competitive, we think of other high-end, rich countries," Koplan says. The report shows that does not hold when it comes to life expectancy.

He agrees with Mokdad that strong environmental elements help explain the risk factors that lead to shortened lives. "If you live in a shady, green neighborhood with sidewalks and security, you are much more likely to go out for a walk," he says.

Environment and access play a role in healthy eating, too, he says. He notes that many people are unable to buy reasonably priced fresh produce.

Consumers should not just think about what they can do as individuals to improve, he says. "It's what can I do and my family do to make my community -- the county, the town, the city -- a healthy environment for all of us," Koplan says.

That could mean, for instance, voting for the bond issue for a neighborhood school that provides for safe playgrounds or voting in bike lanes to encourage more exercise, he says.

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