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America's Health Report Card Shows Improvement Needed

  • Carol Pearson

A new study of Americans’ overall health picture shows that Americans are generally healthier, but may be living with chronic disease longer and dying younger. A look at the contributors, chronic disabilities and risk factors to poor health and premature death shed some light about what's happening.

If you ask Americans about health and life expectancy, they're pretty well informed.

"I believe Americans are living longer. I do not believe they are healthier,” said one woman.

“I don’t think Americans as a whole are very healthy,” said another.

These two people happen to be right, said Dr. Christopher Murray from the University of Washington.

“It turns out we’re living longer but we will spend more years with chronic disabilities of that extra life span,” he said.

Murray led a study that examined the major diseases and injuries that have contributed to poor health and premature death over the past 20 years.

The researchers found the biggest contributors to chronic disability include depression and anxiety, back pain, diabetes and lung diseases that block airflow and make breathing difficult.

As for the greatest causes of premature death, topping the list are heart attack, stroke and cancer. The major causes of these diseases are smoking and eating too much of the wrong foods.

“680,000 deaths are attributable to poor diet. There’s still more than 400,000 deaths a year from tobacco, followed by obesity and then high blood pressure as the key contributors to ill health as risk factors," said Murray.

Air pollution also is a contributor. The National Institutes of Health says air pollution contributes to heart and lung diseases, and evidence points to long-term effects from air pollution on lung development in children.

The researchers also found that diseases related to aging, obesity, and alcohol and drug abuse also are on the rise.

“There are also diseases that are on the rapid increase, things like Alzheimer’s, drug-use disorders, chronic kidney diseases, diabetes,” said Murray.

On the plus side, the study shows Americans generally are enjoying better health longer. That's due to advances in treating stroke, and certain cancers - including colon and breast cancers. Even so, the U.S. lags behind other wealthy nations in advances in population health.

The researchers would like to see more public health programs and interventions to encourage Americans to become more physically active, to make better food choices, to reduce the use of alcohol and tobacco, and to decrease the amount of pollution in cities.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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