A Death Wish: The American Lifestyle and Its Effect on Life Expectancy

Anyone else want to spend the final years of their life here?
Anyone else want to spend the final years of their life here?

As I was browsing the web last night looking for a little inspiration into today’s post, I stumbled across this CNN article which really struck a chord.

For those that don’t want to read through the article, I’ll summarize:

  • America’s life expectancy is growing at a slower rate than other high-income democratic countries.
  • Researchers reviewed health studies from 16 “peer countries” (Australia, Japan, Canada, etc) and compared them to American health  studies.
  • Americans, on average, die younger and develop more disease and illness than international peers.

Let’s reflect on that a minute.  America, the country which, per capita, spends more than any country on the planet on healthcare, is dying younger, and living less healthy lives than our peers.  Shouldn’t the inverse be true?  Shouldn’t America be the beacon of health the entire globe looks to as its role model?  In theory, this might be the case…but in reality, we know this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The American Life Expectancy

One particularly interesting factoid illustrated just how behind we actually are in terms of life expectancy.  An average life expectancy for men is 3.7 years shorter, and 5.2 years shorter for women, than in leading nations – Switzerland and Japan, respectively.  Not only that, this is a gulf that is getting larger, not smaller.  Since 1980 this is a trend that has been continuing, and recently has been continuing at a faster rate.  If this trend continues, there may come a day when the difference between life expectancies in America and other peer countries is similar to the current life expectancy difference between America and sub-Saharan African countries.

Not only are we living shorter lives, but we’re living more disease-plagued lives and spending our final years overcome with illness, disability, and a diminished quality of life.  Anyone else want to spend the last decade or so of their lives being shuttled from doctor appointments, to pharmacies, to hospital beds, all the while living in pain and sickness?  Sounds absolutely miserable.  Yet, when we look around the globe there are plenty of nations and communities within nations, where individuals are showing old age and disease don’t necessarily need to go hand-in-hand.

Why Is America Dying Young and Living Sick?

I know what a lot of you may already be thinking.  America lacks universal health care, which the other peer countries, do not.  If only poor, less educated, and under insured Americans were facing shorter lives and more disease, this argument may have a bit more ground to stand on.  But researchers found that even “white, insured, college-educated Americans are sicker than their peers in Europe”.  Yes, these are the people who actually have access to our health care system and aren’t falling through the cracks.  These people are still dying younger and facing higher rates of chronic disease.  What gives?

While I do agree that access (or lack thereof) to health care plays a part, it would be a cop-out to heave all of the blame on our health care system.  Many experts believe (and I strongly agree with) that more than our health care system, our shorter life expectancies and poorer health are the result of the American lifestyle.  The very (perceived) lifestyle that millions around the world envy and strive to emulate is doing us in…and it’s doing us in at an alarming rate.  Let’s see why…

The American Lifestyle: The Ultimate Killer

As Americans, we have a very”right now” mindset to our daily dealings.  We expect immediate gratification and when we want things, we want them immediately.  This type of living pervades all aspects of our lives…

The American Diet

Much has been written about the American diet.  We eat high fat, carb heavy, salty, highly processed foods.    Roughly 32% of all meals were not prepared at home.  We’re a society that is always on the go and regularly opt for fast food, frozen meals, and quick delivery options.  These meals are almost always high in sodium, fat, bad carbohydrates, and other empty calories.  To compound the problem, we eat fewer fruits, vegetables, and fiber than other nations.  On the subject of calories, Americans on a whole consume more calories than individuals in peer countries. As a result, we have higher rates of obesity and heart disease as well… no surprise there.

Related Article: How Intermittent Fasting Can Save Your Life

The findings in this study demonstrate how decades of poor (and increasingly worse) food choices can catch up with an entire nation.  We are literally eating ourselves into bad health and an early demise.

Americans and Exercise

American society is designed around the automobile.  For hundreds of millions of people, walking, biking, or another form of physical transportation is not an option.  We move less (yet eat more) than other nations, for which our waistlines are suffering.  Americans have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other lifestyle related illness because of our lack of movement. The majority of Americans that do in fact exercise, do not do so regularly enough to reap any real benefits.  Other Americans are simply unable to find the time to exercise given their busy work/life schedules…which leads to another point.

Americans and Work

Compared to other countries, Americans are given far less time off work over the course of a year.  In addition, Americans on average work longer hours each week and have less time to themselves and their families.  We are an over worked, over stressed nation, focusing on all of the wrong priorities.  The American lifestyle dictates 50 weeks of work a year, 40 hour work weeks (or more for many of us), and a sedentary, Office Space-esque existence. Is it any surprise Americans are having a hard time finding ways to fit in an hour of exercise each day?  Granted, laziness plays a large part in this, but the American work schedule is slowly doing it’s part to ensure our early mortality.

How do you spend your average day?  For many, the average routine looks like this: wake up, eat, work, eat, work some more, eat, sleep.  Repeat for 40 years.  Next, spend your Golden Years plagued by disease and disability. After spending the next decade or so going to doctor appointments instead of doing what you always said you would “when you had more time”, it’s time to die. How’s that for a miserable existence?

Is anyone ready to stop spending the prime of their lives overweight, sick, and cooped up in a small box 40+ hours a week…every week….for the next 10, 20, 30+ years….?  Well, the good news is, you can change the course you’re on.

Stop Living Like an American

That’s right…stop living like an American.  Stop driving the 2 miles to the grocery store.  And while you’re there, opt for a bag of carrots instead of Cheetos.  Eat healthy.  Move more.  Ride your bike after work instead of watching TV.  Wake up a little early to exercise.  Make fitness a priority.  Maybe you can’t abandon the cubicle farm just yet, but work towards a career that allows for greater independence or at least a better work/life balance.  Re-prioritize your life and what’s important to you.  Understand more money will not buy you more happiness.  On the contrary, the crap you have to go through to make a few extra bucks at the end of the year may very well be sapping you of the happiness you seek.  Wake up to the game and do something to change it.

A quote from the Dali Lama that I absolutely love:

Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered, “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

In today’s world, you have an abundance of information and health and fitness experts at your fingertips.  You can stream a live yoga class being held in New York City direct to your Lincoln, Nebraska living room. You can join a gym for less than a ticket to a movie and a large soda.  The web offers a host of health and fitness blogs with quality, daily information geared towards helping you build a happy and healthy life.  Don’t know what to do to improve your health or diet?  There are so many people out there encouraging you, telling you what you need to do to improve, and even showing you how to improve.  All you have to do is look for them.

You Are Not Alone

I encourage all of you to seek out sources of health and fitness information that appeals to you.  Follow these bloggers, websites, and industry experts.  It may take some searching, but you’ll find the ones that speak to you.  Once you’ve found them, keep up with them just like you do with your nightly reality shows.  Learn to integrate the information they disperse into your lives.  The web is abuzz with hordes of awesome people dishing out healthy recipes, workout ideas, meal prep advice….you name it.  Above all, they are imparting their knowledge to you, in hopes of helping you become happier, healthier, and more fit.  Best of all, most of these people are simply giving away their base of knowledge for free.  All you have to do is be open to receive the information.

There are tons of fitness communities on the web where you can connect with other like-minded people, directly speak to health and fitness experts, and build a network which helps motivate and encourage you towards self-growth.  Living a healthy life, eating clean, finding effective workouts you actually enjoy is not hard.  It is not expensive.  Yes, it takes some effort, but it has become increasingly easy in the Web 2.0 world we live in.  It’s a new year, and you’re starting with a clean slate.  Make 2013 the year you stop living like the typical American robot and reclaim a happy and healthy life now, and for years to come.

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