Living longer, but sicker in the USA

Mar 4, 2013

Americans are likely to live longer than we might have in the past – but the quality of our golden years appears to be getting worse, when it comes to health.

A new study by Seattle researchers shows Alzheimer’s, depression, and back pain have been increasing dramatically since 1990.

Part of the story is pretty simple. 

"As you get older, you are going to have diseases, and if we control some better, others are going to pop up," says Ali Mokdad, global health professor at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

For example, someone invents a better medication for blood pressure or cholesterol, so people live longer. And, then, more older people get Alzheimer's or injure themselves falling.

The rest of the story gets complicated, says Mokdad, a co-author of one of the hugest health databases you could ever encounter. The Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors tracks how diseases and injuries are impacting people in every country (check out their innovative data visualizations).

"We are paying the bill for our earlier behaviors -- obesity, smoking, physical inactivity," says Ali Mokdad.

In the US, back pain is a huge factor for adults of all ages, and depression is on the rise at all ages, but particularly for adults in their 30s and 40s. 

Many of the other trends are linked to how the American lifestyle has come back to bite us.

"So, we are the paying bill for our earlier behaviors -- obesity, smoking, physical inactivity," says Mokdad, who ran the federal government's biggest routine health survey of Americans at the Centers for Disease Control, before taking his current job in Seattle. After decades of unhealthy behaviors, a number of diseases are increasing.

Learning from the Australians

Perhaps, it doesn’t have to be this way.

"There are lessons for us to learn from countries like Australia, or even developing countries such as Brazil," says Mokdad. Australians put a bigger emphasis on preventive medicine and aggressively attacking tobacco and other health threats.

The Brazilians, in some provinces, are experimenting with free physical trainers and free dance classes, so  the health gap’s not so huge between the wealthy and everyone else. 

As a global database, covering 291 diseases and 67 risk factors, the "Burden of Disease" shows trends that could inform policy decisions in many places. It shows, for example, that Mexico and Fiji are hotspots for diabetes, and it highlights which countries in Africa should focus first on AIDS versus malaria.

“We know that the world’s health can only improve if we are measuring the right problems and evaluating the right solutions,” said IHME Director Christopher Murray, in a press release.