Money Can't Buy You (A Longer) Life

Despite lavish spending on health care in the U.S., our life expectancy rates are falling behind other countries
Despite lavish spending on health care in the U.S., our life expectancy rates are falling behind other countries

Here's a shocking fact: despite the United States' exorbitant spending on health care, our life expectancy rates are slipping behind other countries, according to a new study published in Health Affairs by Columbia University researchers. Our life expectancy is lagging when compared to other rich countries, yes, but also in comparison to poorer nations like Costa Rica, Singapore and Chile. I'm told Cuba could be next.

In the past, we've targeted the usual villians: Americans are fatter, we smoke more, we have more homicides, more car accidents and more minorities — and all these factors conspire to pull down our life expectancy ranking.

Well, according to Peter Muennig, assistant professor of health policy at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia, and the study's lead author, the true culprit is "none of the above."

He says that smoking and homicides have declined in the period researchers were studying, 1975-2005, and traffic deaths are fairly constant. More Americans were actually obese 30 years ago, and over that time, other countries have caught up, weight-wise. The U.S. immigrant population, which has a higher-than-average life expectancy (amazing fact: Asian women in Bergen country, New Jersey have an average life expectancy of 88!) more than offset the generally lower life expectancy of African-Americans.

So what gives?

Apparently, Dear Reader, it is our top-of-the-line, $2 trillion health care system that is killing us before our time.

"The unnecessary care Americans are getting is potentially driving up costs and affecting our longevity," Mr. Muennig says. "Unnecessary care is very likely the culprit."

What he's saying is that a fee-for-service payment system so heavily reliant on specialists tends to work like this: one uneeded test leads to an unecessary procedure; that procedure causes an infection, and that leads to a hospital admission.

"Our health care costs are sapping our federal expenditures," Mr Muennig says. "And this is taking money away from all social programs," some that could actually improve health, like transportation, education and others.

This program aired on October 7, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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