Life’s Too Short In America

Jul 12 2013 @ 8:33pm

Christopher Flavelle reviews a new study showing that Americans have fallen behind Europe in life expectancy and considers our potential to catch up:

The inescapable context for this study is the enduring debate over whether the government should ensure that almost all Americans get access to health insurance. The portion of Americans who are uninsured, or who are insured but lack affordable access to care, is the single biggest difference between the U.S. and other developed countries. It’s also, through Obamacare, a difference that can be fixed.

Richard Gunderman dismisses the importance of the numbers:

[T]he mist of health statistics often obscures the mountain we are really trying to climb. It is true that U.S. life expectancy lags behind that of a number of other nations. It is true that if we could lower rates of smoking and obesity, we could probably bump these numbers up. But a more sober analysis reveals that life expectancy is a pretty poor indicator of health. We are attracted to it because it is straightforward to measure and makes it relatively easy to keep score. But we cannot tell from a person’s life expectancy how well they are actually living.

Suppose through some wonder of modern biomedical science we could suddenly double our life expectancy by staying in bed 20 hours per day, or giving up all solid foods, or never again reading a book. Would we do it? To say that we are willing to pay any price in order to increase the length of our lives is to say that we have forgotten what it really means to live. The Struldbruggs in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels are immortal specimens, but they are also miserable human beings, whose unending lives prove to be not blessing but curse.