New Study Reveals Causes of Lower American Life Expectancy

A study published February 9 in the Journal of the American Medical Association points to three reasons for the life expectancy being lower for Americans than in other developed nations. Care to guess what they are?

2 minute read

February 10, 2016, 5:00 AM PST

By Irvin Dawid

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"Guns, drugs and motor vehicle crashes account for half of the life-expectancy gap between men in the United States and other high-income countries, according to a study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association," writes Carolyn Y. Johnsona reporter covering the business of health for The Washington Post.

The circle chart shows how much each of the causes reduces life expectancy in men:

  • Gun violence: 5.4 months
  • Drug poisoning, which includes overdoses: 3.6 months
  • Motor vehicle crashes: 3.4 months

A corresponding chart points to the same three reasons for lower life expectancy for American women, though the number of months is smaller. Drugs, motor vehicles, and guns, in that order, are the main causes.

The study is significant because American medicine may be focusing on the wrong causes for the lower life expectancy in the United States, "about 2.2 years earlier than their counterparts in a dozen other high-income countries, according to 2012 data," writes Johnson. Traditional health issues such as "chronic disease, obesity, smoking or access to health care" have been its focus.

Gun, drugs, and motor vehicles are by no means strictly American causes of death, but they affect American far more than in other developed nations, so much so that they account for "a full year -- about half of the disadvantage that American men face" in the United States than elsewhere, according to Andrew Fenelon, a researcher with the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and one of three authors of the study.

The figure is a line chart showing that in 2012, a total of 41,502 drug poisoning deaths, 34,935 motor vehicle traffic deaths, and 33,563 firearm deaths occurred. The age-adjusted death rate for drug poisoning more than quadrupled from 3.0 per 100,000 in 1979 to 13.1 in 2012. In contrast, the age-adjusted rate dropped from 22.1 to 10.9 for motor vehicle traffic deaths and from 14.7 to 10.5 for firearm deaths during this period. The age-adjusted drug poisoning death rate exceeded the motor vehicle traffic death rate beginning in 2009.

Credit: CDC, Nov. 21, 2014 

In a related Wonkblog piece, Johnson and Christopher Ingraham delve into how gun violence replaced traffic crashes as the leading cause of preventable death.

"The CDC had not touched firearm research since 1996 — when the NRA accused the agency of promoting gun control and Congress threatened to strip the agency’s funding," wrote Todd C. Frankel for The Washington Post last year.

Hat tip to Michael Keenly

Tuesday, February 9, 2016 in The Washington Post - Wonkblog

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