Progressives like to point out that Americans pay more for health care but fare worse than people in countries of similar wealth.
New life expectancy data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests things are getting worse.
Between 2020 and 2021, American life expectancy decreased by 0.9 years. This follows a 1.8-year decline in 2020.
But many factors influence our longevity more than the healthcare system. In fact, much of the decline in life expectancy has little to do with our healthcare system.
Life expectancy has decreased in most countries, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a University of Oxford study of 29 affluent countries, 27 saw a drop in life expectancy in 2020.
But the coronavirus alone doesn’t fully explain America’s decline. New CDC research attributes it primarily to two factors, the pandemic as well as “unintentional injuries.”
About 16% of the decline in life expectancy between 2020 and 2021 was a function of an increase in accidents and unintentional injuries. The age-adjusted death rate for unintentional injuries increased by almost 17% between 2019 and 2020.
Fatal car crashes rose 6.8% between 2019 and 2020, resulting in the death of nearly 40,000 people — the highest number since 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Drugs also claim more victims. Drug overdose deaths from April 2020 to April 2021 reached 100,306, a 28.5% increase from the previous period. In the 12 months ending March 2022, overdose deaths exceeded 109,000.
The increase in drug trafficking and drug-related deaths is tragic. But even before 2020, Americans had more traffic accidents and overdosed more often than people in other countries.
A 2016 CDC report concluded that the United States had the worst car accident death rate among 20 wealthy countries. And a 2018 study of 13 peer-reviewed countries published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found the United States had the highest rate of drug overdose deaths.
Americans are also disproportionately likely to die from gun violence. The firearm homicide rate in the United States is more than eight times that of Canada and 23 times that of Australia.
The choices and behaviors of individuals contribute to these higher mortality rates. The American healthcare system does not have the power to stop people from using drugs, driving recklessly or shooting themselves.
Likewise, Americans suffer from obesity and diabetes at higher rates than residents of other countries. Both conditions increase the risk of dying from our country’s biggest killer, heart disease. But they largely stem from poor diet and lack of exercise, behaviors over which our health care system has relatively little influence.
To see the role of cultural influences in life expectancy, one need only look at regional variations across the country. There’s a nearly nine-year difference between the state with the highest life expectancy — Hawaii, at 80.7 — and the state with the lowest — Mississippi, at 71.9. according to the CDC.
And the recent decline in life expectancy has not been as severe in the Pacific Northwest or New England as it has been in the South and Southwest.
Americans in all walks of life routinely receive better care than others for certain illnesses, including cancer, our second leading cause of death. In fact, the United States has a lower than average cancer death rate compared to other wealthy nations, 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 those choices matter more than any system.
Sally Pipes is President and CEO and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. His latest book is “False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All”.
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