UW News

March 4, 2013

United States lags behind many developed countries on key health measures


Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation | UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

Americans are living longer, but health in the United States is being severely eroded by poor lifestyle choices such as unhealthy diets, lack of physical activity, smoking, and use of alcohol and drugs. As a result, Americans spend more years living with illness and disability than do people in many countries, including Canada, Germany, and Israel.

Dr. Christopher Murray in Tanzania

UW global health expert Dr. Christopher Murray at an informal meeting in Tanzania.

These are some of the findings from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors 2010 Study, a collaborative project led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the UW. Country-specific findings, including those  for the United States, will be announced March 5 at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle by Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation Director Dr. Christopher Murray and Gates Foundation Co-chair and Trustee Bill Gates.

The findings detail the causes of death and disability – across age groups and sexes – for 187 countries around the world. The Global Burden of Diseases 2010 study encompasses researchers from 303 institutions and 50 countries, and the work, which generated 1 billion estimates for health challenges large and small, was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

A full range of dynamic visualizations of the findings for the United States and other countries can be found at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation website.These tools allow people everywhere to see the progress being made in health and the challenges that remain.

Bangladesh health interview

A global health researcher conducts an interview in Bangladesh.

“We know that the world’s health can only improve if we are measuring the right problems and evaluating the right solutions,” Murray said. “That’s why we are working hard to gather more and better data constantly and are challenging ourselves to improve our analytical methods. We also are expanding our network of collaborators. This extended network will improve the quality of the assessment but also provide a forum for ongoing reflection, learning, interpretation, and action based on the Globan Burden of Diseae results and future revisions.”

An image of a child jumping rope used in an NIH campaign to encourage American children and families to be more active.

An image of a child jumping rope used in an NIH campaign to encourage American children and families to be more active.

Much of the illness and death in the United States is caused by a short list of ailments. The researchers found that just 17 distinct causes account for more than half of the American disease burden, measured as the number of years lost to disability and premature death. The top cause is ischemic heart disease, followed by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, low back pain, lung cancer, and major depressive disorders.

In critical ways, the United States is lagging behind many wealthy and middle-income countries in terms of health. Americans live shorter lives, and shorter healthy lives, than do many other people. For example, men in 39 other countries – including Greece, Lebanon, and South Korea – live longer, and men in 30 other countries – such as Costa Rica, New Zealand, and Portugal – enjoy more years of good health.

Health is being largely eroded because Americans make poor lifestyle choices that cause lung ailments, musculoskeletal stress, and obesity-related illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. Obesity’s impact is especially troubling. High body mass index as a risk factor rose by 45 percent between 1990 and 2010, and is now the third largest risk factor in the United States. Obesity accounts for more than one-tenth of total disease burden in 2010.

Obesity is a major contributor to the global burden of disease.

Obesity is a major contributor to the global burden of disease.NIH

Like many countries in the world, the United States is struggling with a growing burden of disability. Almost all of the top causes of disability – back and neck pains, depression, anxiety, migraine headaches – grew as health threats from 1990 to 2010. These causes of disability are often not causes of death but their toll on health is dramatic.

The Washington Post wrote of the study, “The health of most of the planet’s population is rapidly coming to resemble that of the United States, where death in childhood is rare, too much food is a bigger problem than too little, and life is long and often darkened by disability.”

“We are in transition to a world where disability is the dominant concern as opposed to premature death,” Murray told the Post.

A public symposium on the study will be held on campus at 4 p.m., Monday,  March 11 to discuss the major findings and how the study provides a platform for collaboration across research centers on campus and worldwide. Murray will give a lecture “Findings of the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries and Risk Factors 2010” in Hogness Auditorium at the UW Health Sciences Center. UW President Young, UW Provost Ana Mari Cauce, UW Medicine CEO Paul G. Ramsey, and UW School of Public Health Dean Howard Frumkin will discuss the implications of the study.

A Q&A session will follow and a reception will be held in the Health Sciences lobby. To register for the event, please go to  https://catalyst.uw.edu/webq/survey/alex27/192452.