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Addiction in America: Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

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There is an assumption among many Americans that slowing down chemical consumption is a suitable solution, as opposed to quitting altogether. For example, many people think that cutting down on booze, smoking a few less cigarettes and driving without being intoxicated will somehow improve our overall health and significantly our lifespans. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

According to a new study by Susan Stewart, a researcher at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and David Cutler, an professor at Harvard University, the U.S. has made healthy progress. Those advancements, however, have been hampered by shortcomings in other areas.

Looking to the Past

Stewart and Cutler take a look at the intersection between behavioral change and public health between 1960 and 2010.

The positive news from their study shows Americans added 1.82 years of “quality-adjusted life expectancy” as a result of improving motor vehicle-related deaths and the prevalence of smoking.

But, rising obesity rates, deaths from poisonous substances (including drug overdoses) and firearm homicides and suicides cut life expectancy by 1.77 years, effectively wiping out the 50-year span of behavioral improvements.

Obesity leads the way with the percentage of morbidly obese jumping from 14 percent in 1960 to 36 percent in 2010, largely due to high caloric and processed foods and less physical exercise.

More Health Problems

The other rising and alarming factor is poisoning deaths that have skyrocketed 11-fold as a result of accidental drug overdoses, especially from prescription pain medications.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the modern life expectancy for women is approximately 81.1 years, while males live an average of 76.3 years.

Stewart and Cutler propose ratcheting up public health campaigns around obesity, poisoning and firearms as a way to continue increasing the life expectancy trend.

A 50 percent reduction in morbid obesity and poisoning deaths (comparable to the current smoking decline) and a 10 percent reduction in firearm deaths (comparable to seat-belt use) would yield 1.09 additional years of increased quality-adjusted life expectancy.

Targeting Mental and Physical Health

“The benefits of behavioral and public health advances have been large; nearly two additional years of life primarily from improvements in just two main factors—smoking and motor vehicle accidents,” the authors write.

They are hopeful that tapping the areas of obesity and accidental drug overdoses with appropriate social health messages will bring similar advances.

“Our study demonstrates the enormous benefit of public health and behavioral change in improving population health, underscoring the importance of continued advances in these areas of research and practice,” they conclude.


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