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Poor health report

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The following editorial appeared recently in the Los Angeles Times:

For all of our sophisticated medical care, Americans can expect shorter lives and more health troubles than the people of other well-off nations, according to a new report. And that's not just true of infants and poor people, the groups usually pinpointed as particularly vulnerable to health issues; it is also the case for the affluent, teenagers and middle-aged people. Some of this can be traced to a lack of preventive and primary care, some to car accidents and violence, some to obesity and poor health habits. The United States clearly cannot rest on its past laurels; nor can it expect medical laboratories and research hospitals, for all the lifesaving work they do, to solve the problem.

The new report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine brings more expansive research and a more detailed eye to the subject than previous studies that have reached similar conclusions. The study compared data from 17 countries, including Australia, Canada, Japan and many Western European nations. Among those nations, men in the United States had the lowest life expectancy and women the second-lowest.

A series of related charts vividly details various problem spots, including higher rates of death from heart disease, diabetes and car accidents. Death rates from maternal conditions related to pregnancy are three times higher than those in the other countries — as are deaths from violence.

More preventive and primary care would go a long way toward lowering Type 2 diabetes and heart disease rates, and would assure better maternal and newborn health. The 2010 healthcare reform law will help by ensuring health coverage for more Americans, including free primary care.

Other policy changes also play a role. As a result of safer cars, seat-belt laws and tougher penalties for drunk driving, the number of car fatalities has been dropping in the U.S., though Americans are still less likely to wear seat belts than people in the other countries studied. It's worth remembering that as the discussion of gun control laws takes on new urgency. In contrast to car accidents, gun fatalities have been rising over the last decade, to more than 31,000 in 2010, while drunk-driving deaths have dropped below 11,000, half what they were in 1982.

Medical advances have undoubtedly added to our well-being and longevity; life expectancy in the United States has risen considerably over the last century. But this report should lend new urgency to Americans' slowly growing awareness that there is more to having the best health in the world than spending the most money on health care.