We just got some bad news. Or maybe it’s some good news.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that Americans don’t live as long as citizens of most other rich countries. How is that good news? Because many of our top risk factors are things we can change.
By and large, people who reside in the world’s wealthy countries live longer than we do. We’re the anomaly. We’ve got the money. We can make the changes — if we want to.
In 2010, a baby born in Japan was expected to live to 82.6. Babies born in Iceland, Switzerland, Australia, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Israel, France, and a number of other countries could expect to see their 80th birthdays. What about American babies? Those born in 2010 are expected to live only to age 78.2.
It’s just a difference of a couple years. But still, why do we rank below Chile?
The answer to this question requires other answers. Why are we dying young? What are the biggest risk factors? The study ranks the causes of “years of life lost:” At the top are heart disease, lung cancer, stroke, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Also ranking high are diabetes, cirrhosis, and colorectal cancer.
What puts you at risk for those things? All the usual suspects: poor diet, smoking, not enough exercise, and too much booze. The study specifies that, “the most important dietary risks in the United States are diets low in fruits, low in nuts and seeds, high in sodium, high in processed meats, low in vegetables, and high in trans fats.”
Yep, it’s the same stuff we’ve been hearing forever. Eat your fruits and vegetables — put down the McNuggets.
What do people in other countries do differently that makes them live so much longer? For one thing, they walk more. I lived with a British family in the outskirts of London for a summer during college, and I could count on one hand the number of times they used their car. Of course, with the excellent public transportation available to Londoners — not just the famous subway system, but buses and trains as well — it’s a lot easier to get around without a car than it is in most American cities.
Many of these countries also offer universal health care, which makes it much more likely that people will see a doctor before their condition becomes life-threatening.
As an exchange student, I was terrified when I got a painful eye infection during my summer in England. I didn’t have British insurance. Surely, I couldn’t afford a doctor visit.
Finally, when the pain became too intense, I went to the doctor. (I went on foot, of course.) My doctor’s bill? It came to $0. And the cost of the drugs he prescribed? A grand total of $18. Thank God, the problem I let malinger was simply an eye infection and not a strange-looking mole.
You know what else is more common in places where people live longer? Real food.
The French, Italians, Spanish, Greeks, and Japanese all have strong food cultures. An Italian would not even think about swapping out extra virgin olive oil for cheaper, less-healthy soybean oil. And can you imagine the reaction you’d get if you tried to serve Cheez Whiz to a French person?
In America, we spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than the people of any other nation on earth. Author Michael Moss wrote in his book Salt Sugar Fat how food companies feel compelled to produce junk because healthier alternatives cost more than customers would pay. Real food costs money. And getting sick is the hidden price we pay when we buy cheap food.
Of course, the high cost of an unhealthy lifestyle isn’t shared equally among Americans. A man in wealthy Marin County, California can expect to live nearly a decade longer than a man born in Mississippi. That’s a sad statement in a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal.
OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.