Penn demographer asks if health care system keeps Americans from living longer

According to the World Health Organization, a baby born in America will live up to five years less than a child born in another affluent country. Is the U.S. health care system to blame? Noted demographer Samuel Preston, a Penn professor of sociology, says no.

In a paper co-written with Jessica Ho of Penn’s Population Studies Center, Preston examines the longevity issue and concludes that America’s low longevity ranking can be attributed to the unhealthy lifestyles of middle aged Americans, rather than the much maligned U.S. health care system. In their paper, “Low Life Expectancy in the United States: Is the Health Care System at Fault?,” the researchers say that the low ranking stems from Americans consuming less healthy food than Europeans, being fatter and most notably, smoking heavily for decades.

On the positive side, the researchers present evidence that compared to other countries, the U.S. provides more and better cancer screenings, leading to a high survival rate. Of the 18 countries studied, Americans fare best in survival rates for lung, breast, prostate, colon and rectal cancers.

Preston has been a member of Penn’s sociology department for 20 years, serving as dean of the School of Arts and Sciences from 1998 through 2004. He has published more than a dozen books and 150 papers and reviews on population change, with special emphasis on mortality.

His current research was supported by the U.S. Social Security Administration through a grant to the National Bureau of Economic Research as part of the SSA Retirement
Research Consortium. To read the entire paper, click here.

Click here to read coverage of Preston’s research in the Sept. 22 New York Times.

Originally published on Sept. 22, 2009

Originally published on September 22, 2009