Last year we learned from the US Census Bureau that Jefferson County was in the top ten of the oldest counties in the nation. The good news now is it also appears we are among the healthier of the nation’s counties. A study led by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation looked at changes in longevity, health and health care between 1990 and 2010 and gives the US a pretty poor grade overall.
It seems we are living a bit longer – about 3 years longer than we were in 1990. Life expectancy in the US has risen from 75.2 years to 78.2 years in 2010 and that’s not bad in an absolute sense. What is troubling is that other countries are increasing longevity at a greater rate. It is a race to the death and, unfortunately, we are winning.
It isn’t for lack of effort – we are throwing money at the health care problem at a higher rate than other developed countries. The U.S. spends more money per capita on healthcare than any other country and our high tech approach to medicine appears to be successful when judged by how well we deal with some diseases, like our five year survival rates for some cancers. It seems though that we are the victims of our own bad choices –individual choices and collective choices. In the individual choices arena, the things that are killing us are ischemic heart disease, lung cancer, stroke, pulmonary disease and auto accidents. These killers are related to things like smoking, stress, alcohol consumption and a general tendency to obesity. Our collective choices relate more to our health care delivery system which is obviously not created equal. Counties with higher incomes and higher levels of education do better; poor counties with lower educational levels tend to do worse. On a county by county basis in the United States we have some counties that are as healthy and long lived as any developed country on earth while others are the health equivalent of third world countries.
There should be some practical implications of these observations on our health status. For example, life insurance should cost comparatively more in the US because our chances of dying young are higher. On the downside, our experience on the peninsula suggests we should pay more for Washington Life Insurance. You can look at the interactive map of life expectancy by county in the US and see how well off we are here on the peninsula.
And, the study did not just look at life expectancy; it looked at quality of life as well. We are not doing well there either. In fact, the number of years we are living with disabilities is increasing and that is not a good thing. Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases are continuing to erode the last 10 years or so of our quality of life.
The good news is there are clearly gains to be made, although they may not be easy. Getting more people covered under health insurance may help reduce the disparities we now see in a county by county survey of health. On an individual level, it looks like we need to lose the Twinkies and start exercising and snacking on vegetable bits and other healthy food items. In other words folks, when it comes to long life and good health, we need to heed the sage words of Pogo Possum – “We have met the enemy and it are us.”