I learned long ago when working in applied economics that averages (means or median data) often hide as much information as they impart. To really understand an issue, we need to look at the variation or distribution. Therein always lies a tale. Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism (also the author of Econned), brings our attention to one such disturbing long-run indicator: life expectancy. Despite the overall average life expectancy in the U.S. having risen significantly over the last decades, this longer lifespan is not evenly distributed. In some counties in the U.S., life expectancy has been declining – and that was before the Great Recession/Workers Depression/Financial Unpleasantness. (italic emphasis is mine; bold is from original):
A rising tide did not lift all boats even when the economy looked a lot better than it does now. As Francois T, an MD and medical researcher, wrote:
If you need ONE Indicator of how a nation is doing, it ought to be female life expectancy at birth. It is a tell tale sign that a lot of good things, (or bad things) are happening in the nation under study. … people severely underestimate the real repercussions and total costs of a decrease in female life expectancy at birth.
He pointed to a just-released study, Falling behind: life expectancy in US counties from 2000 to 2007 in an international context. Some of its major findings:
Large swaths of the United States are showing decreasing or stagnating life expectancy even as the nation’s overall longevity trend has continued upwards, according to a county-by-county study of life expectancy over two decades.
In one-quarter of the country, girls born today may live shorter lives than their mothers, and the country as a whole is falling behind other industrialized nations in the march toward longer life…
Some US counties have a life expectancy today that nations with the best health outcomes had in 1957 … Five counties in Mississippi have the lowest life expectancies for women, all below 74.5 years, putting them behind nations such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Peru. Four of those counties, along with Humphreys County, MS, have the lowest life expectancies for men, all below 67 years, meaning they are behind Brazil, Latvia, and the Philippines.
And get a load of this:
Despite the fact that the US 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.
Yet looking at this map (click to enlarge), …
And remember, the data in this study goes through 2007. It will take a few years to find out what impact the crisis has had on the health of America’s citizens.
Life expectancy is strongly correlated with real income and socio-economic status within society. Yes, from a medical standpoint, it’s smoking, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and hypertension that are what limit life expectancy (once child mortality is defeated). But the incidence of smoking, obesity, etc. is all highly correlated with real income, status, and quality of health care. Rich people generally don’t smoke, can afford to eat high-quality nutritious food, and get quality health care. Poor people tend to smoke, get high-fructose corn syrup instead of nutrition, and get lousy health care, if any.
The U.S. simply doesn’t get value for money for all the money it spends on healthcare. It’s the healthcare system that’s broken.