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COURSEY: Having everything, except health

Published: Friday, January 11, 2013 at 12:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 11, 2013 at 12:24 p.m.

My great-aunt Catherine, who was the matriarch of our family, liked to remind me: “If you've got your health, you've got everything.”

In 21st Century America, we've turned that old aphorism on its head: We've got everything, except our health.

In America, we've got flashy cars and big houses and fast food and easy guns. We've got Big Gulp sodas and 30-minute pizzas and on-demand movies and Sunday-, Monday- and Thursday-night football. We've got cellphones and iPads and Xboxes and GoPros. We've got great hospitals, talented doctors, caring nurses, amazing medical technology.

We've got it all.

Except health. American men rank dead last in life expectancy among 17 of the world's developed countries, according to a recent study by a panel of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council. U.S. women are second to last. And America's young people — defined as those under age 50 — are in poorer health and die earlier than their counterparts in places such as Canada, Australia, Japan, Germany and other modern, industrialized countries.

Where once we could honestly boast that we were lucky to enjoy the many benefits of life as Americans, now we live under a cloud known as “the U.S. health disadvantage.”

What happened?

Car accidents, gun violence, drug overdoses and alcohol abuse plague the under-50 set. Heart disease and lung disease related to eating and smoking habits take a grim toll. America's adults have the highest rates of diabetes and its young people have the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancies.

“Something fundamental is going wrong,” Dr. Steven Woolf, who chaired the panel, told the New York Times. “Something at the core is causing the U.S. to slip behind these other high-income countries, and it's getting worse.”

It's a frightening trend. The U.S. spends more per capita on health care than any other country in the study. A couple of generations ago, Americans' life expectancy was near the top of the list.

We've done this to ourselves. Too many of us indulge in bad foods and bad habits. We resist efforts to reform our health care system and provide universal access to it. We have developed a society of haves and have-nots, with higher rates of poverty than any of the other nations in the study.

Ironically, the oldest Americans — those older than 75 — outlive those in other developed countries. We pour huge amounts of financial and medical resources into end-of-life care in the United States, at the same time we are making access to health care difficult for younger citizens.

Our priorities are out of whack. President Obama's Affordable Health Care Act is only a small step in the right direction, and as hard as it was to get that done, we need to go further. It's no coincidence that the countries with better health outcomes than the U.S. have universal, single-payer, government-run health care systems.

We may think we've got everything in America, but my aunt Catherine was right. Without your health, nothing else really matters.

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.

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