The good news is Americans are living longer. The bad is that we’re not living as long as people in other countries.
American longevity has dropped significantly since 1979 compared with longevity elsewhere, according to a 2006 report from the National Academy of Sciences.
American men live to an average age of 75, about four years less than Australians and Japanese, who live to an average of 79. American women have made the biggest comparative drop, going from being the longest-lived in the 1960s to the 28th today.
Japanese women pulled ahead between 1980 and 2006 to an average 86 years, with Italian and French women living to an average of 84 years. During this same time period, American women edged up to an average of 80.
There’s no agreed-upon reason for this, according to a 2011 report from the National Institutes for Health. But researchers do cite a tantalizing clue: Americans seem to have their highest vulnerability between the ages of 55 and 75. These are the years when we die from heart disease, diabetes and lung disease more often than those in other countries.
If Americans make it past 75, they not only have the same chance to live a long life, but they have a shot at joining the ranks of the increasing numbers extending their lives into their 90s and even 100s.
Experts say people are particularly vulnerable from 55 to 75 because this is when the cumulative effects of poor nutrition, lack of exercise and lack of screenings can converge. Poor lifestyle choices can lead to clogged arteries, high blood pressure, insulin resistance and cancers spotted too late for effective treatment.
Obesity is the No. 1 driver of ill health, as far as Dr. Diana Kerwin is concerned. Kerwin, chief of geriatrics at Texas Health Dallas, also blames Americans’ sedentary lifestyle for driving up the increase in fatal diseases.
Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States, killing 1 of 4 of both genders, according to a 2009 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A contributing factor to women’s deaths in particular is a lack of awareness of the symptoms of heart attacks in females, which can lead to critical time elapsing before seeking lifesaving care.
While both men and women can experience the telltale shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen or extreme fatigue or dizziness, women are more likely to dismiss the symptoms as acid reflux, the flu or aging.
Smoking can aggravate diseases or make health problems worse. Experts are encouraged that the percentage of American smokers dropped from 18.9 percent to 18 percent in 2012, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. However, that’s still too many, says Dr. Mitchell Magee, medical director of the CLEAR (Chest Lung Evaluation & Resource) Clinic and surgical director of thoracic oncology at Medical City Dallas.
Plus, many don’t realize they’re at risk for lung cancer even if they don’t smoke, Magee says.
Women seem to be at particular risk for this disease. While the rate of new lung cancer cases has dropped 22 percent for men over the past 33 years, it has risen for women by 106 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. Lung cancer has a greater mortality rate than any other cancer, causing more deaths in women than breast, uterine and ovarian cancer combined.
The median age for a person to receive a diagnosis of lung cancer is 65, and 20 percent of women with the disease have never smoked or had any exposure to smoke.
Magee attributes that to a lack of research and screenings for lung cancer. By the time symptoms occur, it’s usually too late to save the patient.
Women who have had other cancers, have had their ovaries removed surgically before menopause or who have hormone replacement after menopause are at higher risk and would benefit from screenings, he says.