Progressives like to point out that Americans pay more for health care, yet have worse outcomes than people in countries with similar wealth.
New life expectancy data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention appears to suggest that things are getting worse. Between 2020 and 2021, life expectancy in America decreased by 0.9 years. This follows a decline of 1.8 years in 2020.
But there are many more factors that affect our longevity than the health care system. In fact, much of the decline in life expectancy has little to do with our health care system.
Life expectancy has fallen in most countries, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. In an Oxford University study of 29 well-off countries, 27 experienced a decline in life expectancy in 2020.
But the coronavirus alone does not fully explain the decline of the United States. New research from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) mostly attributes this to two factors, the epidemic as well as “unintentional injuries.”
Sixteen percent of the decline in life expectancy between 2020 and 2021 was the result of an increase in accidents and unintentional injuries.
The age-adjusted death rate from unintentional injuries increased by approximately 17% between 2019 and 2020.
Fatal car accidents increased 6.8% from 2019 to 2020, resulting in nearly 40,000 lives lost — the highest number since 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Drugs take more lives, too. The number of deaths due to drug overdose from April 2020 to April 2021 was 100,306 – an increase of 28.5% over the previous period. In the twelve months ending March 2022, the number of deaths from overdose exceeded 109,000.
The increase in deaths from traffic accidents and drugs is tragic. But even before 2020, Americans had more traffic accidents and overdosed on them than people in other countries.
A 2016 CDC report concluded that the United States has the worst car accident death rate among 20 wealthy countries. A 2018 study of 13 peer countries published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that the United States had the highest death rate from drug overdose.
Americans are also disproportionately likely to die from gun violence. The gun murder rate in the United States is more than eight times that of Canada – and 23 times that of Australia.
Individuals’ choices and behavior contribute to these high mortality rates. The US health care system does not have the power to stop people from using drugs, driving recklessly, or shooting each other.
Similarly, Americans suffer from obesity and diabetes at higher rates than residents of other countries. Both conditions increase the risk of death from fatal heart disease in our country. But it stems largely from poor diet and lack of exercise, behaviors that the health care system has relatively little influence over.
To see the role of cultural influences in life expectancy, we just need to look at regional differences across the United States. There is a difference of about nine years between the state with the highest life expectancy — Hawaii, at 80.7 years — and the state with the lowest life expectancy — Mississippi, at 71.9 years, according to the CDC.
And the recent decline in life expectancy has not been as sharp in the Pacific Northwest or New England as in the South and Southwest.
Americans across the board routinely receive better care than people elsewhere for certain diseases — particularly cancer, which is our second leading cause of death. In fact, the United States has a lower-than-average cancer death rate than other wealthy countries, according to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Progressives tend to blame systems, rather than individual choices, for disparities in everything from income to health. But sometimes, these choices are more important than any other system.
Sally Pipes is President, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book, False Introduction, False Promise: The Catastrophic Reality of Medicare for All.
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