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Americans don't live as long as residents of other countries

Life expectancy in the United States lags behind other leading nations by a wide margin, a recent report by Population Health Metrics found. Even worse, the gap seems to be widening. The report shows that more than 80 percent of U.S. counties lost ground in life expectancy standings when compared to the average of the 10 nations that have the best life expectancies. This group includes Australia, Canada and Japan.

Christopher Murray, Institute for Health Medtrics and Evaluation (IHME) director and one of the study’s co-authors, says in a press release, "Despite the fact that the U.S. spends more per capita than any other nation on health, eight out of every 10 counties are not keeping pace in terms of health outcomes. That's a staggering statistic."

How long are we living?

life expectancyAmerican women can expect to live 80.8 years, which ranks them 33rd in the world. Men came in at 36th with an average life span of 75.6 years. The report found wide discrepancies in life expectancy across the United States and even in neighboring counties. In 2007, U.S. life expectancies ranged from 15 years ahead of the comparison group to 50 years behind.

Mississippi was home to five of the shortest-living counties in the nation, with a life expectancy average of 74.5 years. This puts the average life span of some Mississippi residents behind countries such as El Salvador, Honduras and Peru.

It's not all bad news, however. On average, life expectancy here is up 4.3 years for men and 2.4 years for women, from 1987 to 2007. This gain is not as great as that of many other nations, however.

There are experts who assert the Population Health Metrics report is not an accurate representation.  "Comparing county data to a calculated average of 10 countries is not exactly fair, says  Craig Chupp, chief actuary for the Colorado Division of Insurance. “A more realistic comparison would be one that compared similar counties in other countries with our data."

Recommendations for increasing life expectancy

The authors of the report suggest that national, state or even local polices may be effective for banning trans fat and regulating salt in packaged foods to extend life expectancies. Alcohol and tobacco use could be curtailed through higher taxes. Local communities can help promote physical activity and screen for high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

Other factors that are considered in the report are the social and cultural environment. Here’s where the real problem lies, says Isaac W. Eberstein,  chair of the department of sociology at Florida State University. He speculates that factors such as obesity and high blood pressure could merely be the symptoms of a larger problem such as inequality.

"As higher paying blue collar jobs disappear, health care becomes more casual, which can lead to these conditions,” he says. “In addition, as inequality increases, people can lose hope and depression can set in, which affects people's health and life expectancy." While these issues are complicated, finding a solution on national and local levels is important.

Life insurance under decreasing life expectancy

What does it mean to folks who want to buy life insurance? Studies like these don’t influence insurance rates. Actuaries use a variety of data to construct mortality tables that help them determine how long  people will live. These tables look at the incidences of deaths in the past and then develop expectations of mortality going forward.

According to Chupp, "Insurers do not use mortality tables that adjust on a county by county basis, or even a state level; there is one for the entire nation."

Insurers look at age, weight and behaviors when they offer life insurance quotes. If you are a smoker or overweight, you will pay more for a life insurance policy, no matter what county you live in.

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