Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Archive for February 2019

Is the US Healthcare system responsible for our low life expectancy?

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No. For life expectancy in developed countries, individual differences matter more than health systems.

The US is known for having below-average life expectancy for a developed country. This is true, but all generalizations about the US are wrong in important ways because the country is so huge and diverse (can I claim this as Bailey’s law? Or did someone else in our huge, diverse country already take credit?).

First there is huge variation across states, with average life expectancy ranging from at totally respectable 81.3 years in Hawaii to 75 years in Mississippi (putting it in the tier of much poorer countries like Iran, Brazil, or Sri Lanka).

Its common to blame low US life expectancy on “the US healthcare system”, but this can’t be right. Are the 12+ states with life expectancy of 80+ years not part of the real US health care system? Health policy is largely set at the federal level. Perhaps the exceptions are important, or for some other reason (more/better doctors?) the healthcare system really is better in those states. There is no “US healthcare system”, but rather 50+ US healthcare systems. Possible.

But there is also huge variation by race– from 74.6 years for African-Americans to 86.5 years for Asian-Americans. If Asian-Americans were their own country, they would have by far the longest life expectancy of any country in the world (currently Japan leads at 83.7). African-Americans, by contrast, would be down in the tier of middle-income countries, just as Mississippi was (though their life expectancy is still well above that of any sub-saharan African country, including relatively prosperous ones like South Africa and Botswana). Its also not a simple story of income differences- note that average Latino life expectancy in the US is 82.8 years, 3.9 years above whites (the Hispanic Paradox).

When we take advantage of the race-by-state cross-tabulations, we can really start to tell which stories about life expectancy have more merit. Asian-Americans maintain world-class life expectancies even while living in states near the bottom of the US rankings, like Alabama and Louisiana. If the problem were really about the health systems in those states being much worse than average, this would be hard to explain. One explanation I’ve heard from several other health economists is that the US healthcare system is actually good for most people, but bad for the ~20% who are poor and/or uninsured. This 20% does dramatically worse, skewing our overall average life expectancy downwards; and they are more concentrated in certain states, which explains the state-to-state variation. This sounds plausible and mostly matches the state variation, though it would mean the Hispanic Paradox remains a paradox; also, in Massachusetts blacks as well as Hispanics and Asians now outlive whites.

What explanations remain? Differences in health behaviors (e.g. diet, exercise, drug and alcohol use, medication adherence, accidents) are looking good. Genetics are possible too. Both could also explain why women live five years longer than men. My ad-hoc analysis here matches up with a lot of the more serious life expectancy research, for instance the research behind this tool you can use to calculate your personal life expectancy. Note how almost all of their questions are about your daily behaviors, and almost none are about interactions with the medical system.

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Written by James Bailey

February 16, 2019 at 3:56 pm