Earlier this week data published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicated that the life expectancy of people in the United States has increased over the past two decades by three years, to 78.2. This means that the average American today enjoys an extra 1,100 days of life. However, the news is not all good. For example, the U.S. still lags behind most of the world's other rich nations on a number of health indices, including rates of heart disease, lung cancer, and diabetes. Moreover, during the same period, the U.S. ranking in healthy life expectancy fell from 14th to 26th. As one news outlet put it, "although we are living longer, we are not living better."
The statistics surrounding life expectancy are important, and in general it is highly desirable that we find ways to prevent needless deaths. No one wants to die before their time, particularly if we are paying this price for something so trivial as an extra daily nut fudge sundae. On the other hand, the idea of "living better" deserves serious examination. What do we mean when we say that someone is living well or living poorly?
It is tempting to compare metrics on waistlines, blood glucose levels, or relative risk of developing cancer, in part because we love the competitive spirit behind such rankings. We love to think, for example, that the U.S. leads the world in number of patent applications, justifying our claim to be the most innovative nation on earth (in fact, we're number 3). Likewise, we take great comfort in the notion that the U.S. has the highest per capita income in the world (actually, we're somewhere between number 5 and 10). Many of our national pastimes are competitive sports with clear winners and losers, and we carry our love of competition right through to the hospital and into the cemetery.