Countries that surpass the U.S. include Japan and most of Europe, as well as Jordan, Guam and the Cayman Islands.
Avers Dr. Christopher Murray, head of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington: "Something's wrong here when one of the richest countries in the world, the one that spends the most on health care, is not able to keep up with other countries".
Accordingly, a baby born in the United States in 2004 will live an average of 77.9 years. That life expectancy ranks 42nd, down from 11th two decades earlier, according to international numbers provided by the Census Bureau and domestic numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics.
The country with the most number of Methuselahs is Andorra, nestling in the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain. Here the average life expectancy is 83.5 years. It is followed by Japan, Macau, San Marino and Singapore.
The Census Bureau lists countries having the shortest life expectancies mainly at Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that has been hit hard by an epidemic of HIV and AIDS, as well as famine and civil strife. Swaziland has the shortest, at 34.1 years, followed by Zambia, Angola, Liberia and Zimbabwe.
According to researchers, several factors have contributed to the United States falling behind other industrialized nations. A major one is that 45 million Americans lack health insurance, while Canada and many European countries have universal health care.
Other factors cited are: Obesity (Adults in the United States have one of the highest obesity rates in the world. Nearly a third of U.S. adults 20 years and older are obese), Racial disparities (Black Americans have an average life expectancy of 73.3 years, five years shorter than white Americans), Higher infant mortality rates (A relatively high percentage of babies born in the U.S. die before their first birthday, compared with other industrialized nations).
Another reason for the U.S. drop in the ranking is that the Census Bureau now tracks life expectancy for a lot more countries — 222 in 2004 — than it did in the 1980s.Yet, that does not explain why so many countries entered the rankings with longer life expectancies than the United States.
According to Murray, improved access to health insurance could increase life expectancy. But, he emphasizes, that is not all. Policymakers also should focus on ways to reduce cancer, heart disease and lung disease. He advocates stepped-up efforts to reduce tobacco use, control blood pressure, reduce cholesterol and regulate blood sugar.
Says Murray:" The starting point is the recognition that the U.S. does not have the best health care system. There are still an awful lot of people who think it does."