It seems that every day, we see or hear news stories about how unhealthy Americans are. Access to health care in the U.S. ranks well behind other developed countries, and our costs are considerably higher as well. We spend huge amounts of money, yet have comparatively shorter life spans and higher infant mortality rates than many developed countries--common markers for a nation’s “health.” We have high obesity rates, high heart disease rates and our kids appear to be getting lazier and unhealthier.
But are we really moving backwards as a population? Is America really getting unhealthier?
New research from Harvard School of Applied Sciences has found that Americans are, in general, healthier until much later in life than previously had been the case. Rather than spending the last several years of life in poor health, most Americans are living longer in good health before declining just before death. The study concludes that not only is death being put off until older ages, but also medical care has gotten much better at keeping people in good health. Health literacy on the whole has improved--people are much better educated than they’ve been in the past.
The Harvard report also touched on the fact that heart attacks are much less common today than in the past. Why? Many people are regularly taking cholesterol-lowering drugs and even after a stroke or heart attack, can lead long, healthy lives.
For decades, one of the most devastating killers in America was smoking. But smoking rates have dropped significantly over the past several decades. In fact, since 2001, national smoking rates have fallen from 23.2 percent to 17.9 percent in 2009. This information ties in with the improved health awareness – the anti-smoking campaigns appear to be working. Likewise, cancer deaths on the whole are down 20 percent over the last two decades, which doctors credit to both prevention (health literacy) and treatment (improved medication).
What about the childhood obesity epidemic among America’s youth? In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control reported that the number of low-income preschoolers who qualify as obese or extremely obese has dropped during the past decade. While this may seem like a small subset, it is believed to be representative of the adolescent population as a whole. As people have become more aware of the dangers of obesity, they have started taking action to help their kids avoid unhealthy weight gain. Obesity rates are still very high, but the figure appears to have peaked in 2003.
Gym memberships are on the rise, as are enrollments in 5k and half-marathon races, for example. Adventure runs and themed races have become popular social events for young people, and healthy eating is becoming a subject no longer limited to those trying to lose weight. Americans may actually be moving in the right direction.
The most promising statistic of all? In 1981, the U.S. life expectancy was 70.3 years. In 2011, it was 79.0 years…and rising.
Of course, all of these statistics must be taken with a grain of salt. Smoking rates among young Americans still remain at about 21 percent, which has been fairly consistent for a decade. Obesity rates, though declining, are doing so gradually – and remain at a still high 15 percent among low-income preschoolers.
And while gym memberships have risen, does that mean people are actually going? The health of the nation may be improving, statistically--but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people are much healthier, and it certainly doesn’t mean that there still isn’t a lot of room to improve.
However, with the advances in technology and the improved health literacy of the populace, it appears, at the very least, that things may finally be moving in the right direction.
Published On: August 06, 2013