By Tucker, Charlotte
The Nation's Health , Vol. 41, No. 2
LIFE EXPECTANCIES in the United States lag behind some other high-income countries less because of things Americans are doing now than because of behaviors they have engaged in in the past.
Specifically, U.S life expectancies are lagging because of smoking. According to a report released by the National Research Council in January, heavy smoking in the past five decades is shortening American lifespans today.
"I think the report puts together a variety of evidence to answer a question that hadn't really been asked before," said Samuel Preston, PhD, co-chair of the council's Panel on Understanding Divergent Trends in Longevity in High-Income Countries. Over the past 25 years, life expectancy at age 50 in the United States has been increasing, but at a much slower rate than in some other high-income countries. According to National Center for Health Statistics 2007 data, the average life expectancy at birth today is 75.3 years for men and 80.4 years for women. To contrast, in Japan men live to an average age of 79.2 years and women to 86 years, as of 2006.
Researchers attribute the slower rate of increase--for women in the United States the increase was about 40 percent smaller than in other countries--to widespread smoking 30 to 50 years ago.
Over the period 1950 to 2003, the gain in life expectancy at age 50 was 2.1 years lower among U.S. women, compared with the average of nine other high-income countries, the report said. Women in the United States, on average, will live 5.7 years longer now than they would have in 1950. In the other nine countries, women are living an average of 7.8 years longer than in 1950.
"The damage caused by smoking was estimated to account for 78 percent of the gap in life expectancy for women and 41 percent of the gap for men between the United States and other high-income countries in 2003," the report said.
Smoking rates in the United States are not nearly as high now as they were in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly for women, Preston said.
"American women led the world for years (in smoking)," Preston told The Nation's Health.
And now, their life expectancy is increasing at a much slower rate than in other high-income nations.
Researchers also used smoking data to predict how life expectancy will be affected over the next two to three decades. Life expectancy for men will likely begin to improve "relatively rapidly" in coming decades because of reductions in smoking in the last 20 years, they said.
For women it is a different story. Women's smoking behavior peaked later than men's, so declines in mortality will likely remain slow for the next 10 years. …