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Smoking, Obesity Behind Bad U.S. Life Expectancy

By: AP
By: AP

The U.S. spends more on health care than any other nation yet has worse life expectancy than many -- and a new report blames smoking and obesity.

That may sound surprising, considering that public smoking is being stamped out here while it's common in parts of Europe. And obesity is a growing problem around the world.

But the U.S. led those unhealthy trends, lighting up and fattening up a few decades ahead of other high-income countries. And the long-term consequences are life expectancy a few years shorter than parts of Europe and Japan, the National Research Council reported Tuesday.

In the U.S., life expectancy at birth was 80.8 years for women and 75.6 years for men in 2007. In France, life expectancy for women was 84.4 years and 77.4 for men. And in Japan, it was nearly 86 years for women and 79.2 for men.

But thanks to the decline in smoking over the last 20 years, the life expectancy of U.S. men is expected to rapidly improve in coming decades. That improvement will be a little slower for U.S. women, whose peak smoking rates occurred several years after men's.

In countries where women's life expectancies are particularly high, women never smoked as much as men, said gerontologist Eileen Crimmins of the University of Southern California, who co-chaired the report. But in some Northern European countries, women's smoking was more similar to Americans' and life expectancy is too.

While smoking is the key factor, the report also said obesity may account for a fifth to a third of the U.S. shortfall in life expectancy.

It's hard to predict if that impact will continue, Crimmins said. Treatments may allow people to survive obesity's damage for longer, although specialists are particularly concerned about the lifespan of children who live all their lives obese rather than getting fat after they're grown.

As for all those health care bills, "it's not enough to trump a lot of our behaviors," Crimmins said.

The council is part of the National Academy of Sciences, an independent organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific matters.

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