US health outcomes far worse than other comparable nations, report finds

Compared to other major nations, the overall health outcomes of the United States have been found to be significantly lacking.

In one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind, researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) found that in nearly every major cause of premature death – from heart disease to interpersonal violence – the U.S. fares worse than its economic peers.

Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the report analyzed all data and scientific literature – both in the United States and 34 countries across the globe – available for 291 diseases, conditions and injuries that cause death and disability.

Utilizing a team of global researchers, the study highlighted the impact of premature deaths in children and young adults on each nation, as well as the overall effects of disabling conditions such as lower back pain and major depression.  The researchers also examined 67 known health risk factors associated with both fatal and non-fatal health disorders.

The study’s results were presented to government officials Wednesday at a White House event hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama as part of her “Let’s Move!” campaign.

“These days, there are lots of very detailed studies about very specific conditions, and that’s pretty hard for people to step back and look at the overall picture for the U.S.,” Dr. Christopher Murray, the IHME director and one of the lead authors on the study, told “(It’s also hard) understanding what are the leading causes of ill health and how do we stack up and who in the US is doing a good job.  Our goal is to provide that big picture view.”

While the United States has made strides in some major areas – such as preventing premature deaths from stroke and breast cancer – the country has fallen behind most nations in regards to deaths from many other conditions. Ischemic heart disease still remains the leading cause of premature death, measured in years of life lost. It accounted for 15.9 percent of premature deaths in the U.S. in 2010, followed by lung cancer, which accounted for 6.6 percent of deaths.

Additionally, Alzheimer’s disease, liver cancer, Parkinson’s and kidney cancer were all found to be on the upswing, rapidly accounting for a significant increase in premature deaths in the U.S.  Murray and his team were also surprised to find that deaths attributed to road traffic injuries, drug abuse and self-harm were more prevalent than previously thought.  Drug use disorders accounted for more years of life lost than both prostate cancer and brain cancer combined – up 448 percent since 1990.

The report also found a shift away from conditions that shorten life to conditions that cause chronic disability.

“Overall, life expectancy has improved in the United States,” Murray said.  “So people are living longer but spending somewhat more time with chronic diseases that cause disability.”

Low back pain was found to be the leading cause of years lived with disability in the United States, followed by major depressive disorder and other musculoskeletal disorders.  Murray noted that while the United States has spent a great amount of money and effort to find cures for fatal conditions like cardiovascular disease and cancer, the same kind of attention hasn’t been given to the leading causes of disability.

In order to determine the causes behind these diseases, the researchers also looked at behaviors and risk factors that could potentially explain their findings.

“The number one risk factor is diet and that’s followed by tobacco and then obesity and then high blood pressure and physical inactivity,” Murray said. “The risk factor part is important, because when we (look locally), we see some communities that see improvement and some see no improvement; the risk factors help us understand that.”

Out of its 34 economic peer countries in Europe, Asia and North America, the U.S. ranked 27th in disease burden brought on by dietary factors, 27th on high body mass index (BMI) and 29th in blood sugar levels.

Fortunately, Murray said there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  Because some small American communities actually outranked many of the other countries studied – in terms of diet, low premature deaths and chronic disability – Murray hopes that future researchers will study these regions to determine what government officials and the Americans can do to make improvements to the country’s overall health outcomes.

“The main important finding is that there are places in the U.S. that have actually done rather well as compared to high income countries.  As a whole we don’t do so well.  But when you look at the key risk factors, there are places that have done a good job of improving.  We need to learn from our own success stories from within the U.S. and transfer that to areas inside which haven’t seen progress,” Murray said

To learn more about the United States’ heath trends in regards to other nations, visit the Global Burden of Disease visualization page.