Lies, Damned Lies, & Statistics

In the ongoing debate on ObamaCare, many of my friends, and even more of my enemies, have been using their perception of the quality of U.S. healthcare as an argument for adopting Socialized Medicine. Two (to their minds) damaging statistics are the U.S. ranking in total life expectancy and also in infant mortality. A closer look at the stats however reveals a very different story. Following is an excerpt from a Reason Magazine article that addressed these misconceptions, with excellent source citations:

According to the World Health Organization, average life expectancy in Japan is 83 years; Australia, 82; Switzerland, 82; Canada, 81; Sweden, 81; Spain, 81; Italy, 81; France, 81; Germany, 80; and the United Kingdom, 79. In all, there are 29 countries whose citizens have longer life expectancies than Americans.

So why do Americans die younger than people living in most other developed democracies? Well, there is the Michael Moore answer delivered in his “documentary” Sicko—it’s because we lack a benevolent government funded health care system. But life expectancy is not dependent on just medical care. For example, Texas A&M health economist Robert Ohsfeldt and health economics consultant John Schneider point out that deaths from accidents and homicides in America are much higher than in any other of the developed countries. Taking accidental deaths and homicides between 1980 and 1999 into account, they calculate that instead of being at near the bottom of the list of developed countries, U.S. life expectancy would actually rank at the top.

University of Iowa researchers, Robert L. Ohsfeldt and John E. Schneider, reviewed the data for the nations of the OECD to statistically account for the incidence of fatal injuries for the member countries. The dynamic table below presents their findings, showing both the average life expectancy from birth over the years 1980 to 1999 without any adjustment (the actual “raw” mean), and again after accounting for the effects of premature death resulting from a non-health-related fatal injury (the standardized mean). You may sort the data in the dynamic table from low to high value by clicking on the column headings, or from high to low value by clicking a second time.

OECD Nation

Actual (Raw) Mean

(Does Not Account for Fatal Injuries)

Standardized Mean

(Accounts for Fatal Injuries)

Australia

76.8

76.0

Austria

75.3

76.0

Belgium

75.7

76.0

Canada

77.3

76.2

Denmark

75.1

76.1

France

76.6

76.0

Germany

75.4

76.1

Iceland

78.0

76.1

Italy

76.6

75.8

Japan

78.7

76.0

Netherlands

77.0

75.9

Norway

77.0

76.3

Sweden

77.7

76.1

Switzerland

77.6

76.6

U. K.

75.6

75.7

U. S. A.

75.3

76.9

America’s relatively high infant mortality rate also lowers our life expectancy ranking. A 2007 study done by Baruch College economists June and David O”Neill sheds some light on why U.S. infant mortality rates are higher—more low weight births. In their study, U.S. infant mortality was 6.8 per 1,000 live births, and Canada’s was 5.3. Low birth weight significantly increases an infant’s chance of dying. Teen mothers are much more likely to bear low birth weight babies and teen motherhood is almost three times higher in the U.S. than it is in Canada. The authors calculate that if Canada had the same the distribution of low-weight births as the U.S., its infant mortality rate would rise above the U.S. rate of 6.8 per 1,000 live births to 7.06. On the other hand, if the U.S. had Canada’s distribution of low-weight births, its infant mortality rate would fall to 5.4. In other words, the American health care system is much better than Canada’s at saving low birth weight babies —we just have more babies who are likely to die before their first birthdays.

The fact that Americans tend to be a lot fatter than the citizens of other rich developed countriesincreases their risks of heart disease and diabetes. A recent international survey reported that31 percent of Americans are obese (body mass index over 30), whereas only 23 percent of Britons, 21 percent of Australians and New Zealanders, 14 percent of Canadians, 13 percent of Germans, 9 percent of the French, and 3 percent of Japanese have body mass index measurements over 30.

Taking all these unhealthy proclivities into consideration, the American health care system is most likely not to blame for our lower life expectancies. Instead, American health care is rescuing enough of us from the consequences of our bad health habits to keep our ranking from being even lower.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

One response to “Lies, Damned Lies, & Statistics

  1. This is another example of politics making strange bedfellows, I couldn't agree more with your post. I bet your just thrilled? We Americans smoke more, are more stressed out exercise less eat way to much and it's usually "bad" for us what we are eating and the Japenese are only out living us by 3 years?I'll take pizza and chips and burgers and beer, instead of a bowl of rice and some raw fish anyday, and if I die 3 years early, big deal, that's a good trade.Later, feeno

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s