Debunking myths about America’s longevity gains

Americans are living longer. We hear that claim often from politicians worried about entitlement spending, policymakers urging us to postpone retirement – even insurance companies pitching annuities.

And it’s true: Average life expectancy in the United States rose by almost eight years from 1978 to 2011, to 78.7 years, according to a new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But here’s something you’ll hear less often: Longevity is rising much more slowly in the United States than in other major industrialized nations. In fact, the average life expectancy among member nations of the OECD is now higher, at 80.1 years, than the U.S. average. (The OECD comprises most of the world’s major economic powers, including the United States.)

And the world’s leading economies leave us in the dust. Consider just the OECD data on female longevity, since women are the star performers when it comes to longevity. An American woman who turned 65 in 2011 gained 4.6 years of average life expectancy compared with someone who turned 65 in 1960. But if that woman had been Japanese, she would have gained 9.6 years. A French woman gained 8.2 years; for an Italian, it was 7.3 years.

It’s no coincidence that all the longevity leaders have universal health insurance coverage – and the United States does not. In fact, almost every OECD member country has universal coverage, and most deliver better primary care to far more of their citizens than the United States.

Even after all the bloodletting from the launch of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is over, we still won’t have universal coverage. With many states opting out of the law’s Medicaid expansion, 8 million people who could have been covered are likely to continue getting their care triage-style in emergency rooms. That will be expensive for hospitals, and it means those patients won’t be getting the basic follow-up care that can help them recover and stay healthy. That will continue to drag down the U.S. performance on longevity in the years ahead.

Learn more at Reuters Money.