Life Expectancy Comparisons Misleading

One of the favorite arguments of proponents of Health Care reform is comparison of US life expectancy with life expectancies in other countries. The US is ranked 41st – 50th depending on the list one consults. These data are supposed to indicate (prove?) that other countries, especially those with socialized health plans, have better systems than we have. Even a cursory examination of comparisons of life expectancies reveals that it’s like comparing snakes and worms (as in “can of”). Citizens in different countries have disparate life styles, diets, histories, etc. all of which can affect life expectancy. For example, people born in the 1920’s who might have started out with a decent “from birth” life expectancy were suddenly faced with a little thing called “World War II.” When bombs start falling all bets are off.

With this in mind, I found it interesting to note that factors used to determine U.S. life expectancy include auto accidents, homicides, and military deaths. Since we drive more than just about anybody else, have a high homicide rate, and provide more of the manpower to fight wars than other countries our mortality rate goes up in comparison. As Disraeli said and Mark Twain repeated: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

Of course, auto accidents, murders, and war may point to more pressing concerns than health care. (Interestingly, more military personnel are surviving what used to be fatal battlefield wounds than ever before because of advances in medical treatment. But that’s another topic.)

The point here is that we should not accept that spurious claim that other countries have higher life expectancies than we do because they have superior (socialized) health care plans. As one list that ranked us 45th said, “This list does not directly reflect the quality of healthcare of the countries listed.”

At least that’s how it looks from here.

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