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Americans Sicker Compared to Other Wealthy Nations

By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 9, 2013 -- Americans die younger and have higher rates of many types of diseases and injuries than people in other high-income countries, a new report shows.

“The health of Americans is far worse than the health of people in other countries despite the fact that we spend more money on health care,” says report author Steven H. Woolf, MD, MPH, during a news conference. He is a professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “This has been going on since 1980 and getting progressively worse. I am struck by the gravity of our findings.”

This health disadvantage exists at all ages from birth to age 75 and in all socioeconomic groups. “Even those who are insured and college educated and have high incomes seem to be in worse health than people in other nations,” he says.

The report, put out by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, looked at multiple diseases, injuries, and behaviors across the entire life-span among 17 nations, including the U.S., Australia, Canada, Japan, and Western European countries.

Overall, American men live four years less than men in certain other high-income countries, and women live five years less than women in certain other countries, the report shows.

According to the report, the U.S. is at or near the bottom in nine key health areas, including:

  • Infant death and low birth weight
  • Injuries and murders
  • Teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections
  • Prevalence of HIV and AIDS
  • Drug-related deaths
  • Obesity and diabetes
  • Heart disease; chronic lung disease; and disability 

Specifically, children born in the U.S. are less likely to reach their fifth birthday than kids from certain other countries. The U.S. also has the highest infant death rate of any high-income country.

What’s more, U.S. teens have higher rates of death from traffic accidents and murders, the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, and are more likely to catch sexually transmitted infections. “I was stunned by how pervasive the disadvantage was across so many different topic areas,” Woolf says.

The playing field changes after age 75, the report shows. If an American lives to 75, they have a higher life expectancy than people in the other high-income countries.

Do Americans Take Worse Care of Themselves?

So why are we faring so poorly up until 75? There are many possibilities, Woolf says.

Americans are more likely to take part in certain unhealthy behaviors, such as eating high-fat, high-caloric diets and not wearing seatbelts.

When looking for causes and solutions, we have to think outside of the box, says panel member Ana V. Diez-Roux, MD, PhD, MPH. She is a professor and chair of epidemiology, and director of the Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. 

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