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U.S. Lagging Other Countries on Many Health Measures

Report finds some gains, but also many areas where Americans' health is slipping

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"We have been gradually improving over the last 20 years, but other countries have progressed even more rapidly, and our relative standing compared to other wealthy countries has actually declined," said Dr. Harvey Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine, who wrote an accompanying editorial on the study.

From 1990 to 2010, average life expectancy increased in the United States by three years -- from 75.2 years to 78.2 years for both sexes combined. But other prosperous countries saw larger gains over that period.

Ireland gained 5.1 more years, on average. South Korea gained 7.6 years of life expectancy on average. And life expectancy in Australia grew by an average of 4.6 years.

Murray said Australia makes an interesting comparison to the United States. Both are countries of immigrants with culturally diverse populations. Australia spends half as much as the United States on health care each year. Despite that, Australians are less likely to die prematurely or become disabled than Americans. They also have lower rates of major killers like heart disease, lung cancer, violence and diabetes, he noted.

"Australia has done a better job of bringing down smoking. They have road traffic injury rates that are quite a bit lower than ours. They've done a lot more public health intervention," Murray explained.

And Australia has a much bigger emphasis on primary care. They do a better job of helping people control chronic risk factors such as high blood pressure, he added.

So what can Americans do if they want to spend more of their lives in good health?

The study found the biggest hurdles are related to lifestyle. Poor nutrition and diet were the major contributors to both early death and disability. Tobacco smoking was second on the list of major risk factors, followed by high blood pressure, being overweight or obese, and being physically inactive.

"If we want to be healthier, we have to change the way many of us live," Fineberg said. "Twenty percent of adults in the U.S. still smoke cigarettes. A growing number of adults in some states are overweight or obese.

"We need to get more exercise on average than we do, and we need to stop doing foolish things like driving after we've been drinking alcohol or drinking to excess," he said. "Those are sort of simple to say, but they're really hard to put into everyday practice and to stay with it," he pointed out.

Fineberg said he'd like to see more money spent on helping people make those difficult changes, and far less money spent on expensive but questionable tests and treatments.

"We spend, on average, twice as much as the rest of the countries," he said. "Approximately 30 percent of all health expenditures in the United States, which would amount to $750 billion a year, don't actually contribute to better health," said Fineberg, citing a 2012 Institute of Medicine report.

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