TUESDAY, Aug. 2, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Americans used to live a little longer than Europeans, but that's no longer the case, according to a new study that gives high-income nations in Europe an 18-month advantage in longevity.
Smoking, in particular, and obesity are to blame, said the U.S. researchers. But measures to curb unhealthy behaviors could improve life expectancy in coming years and help to reduce health care costs, they said.
"The question is whether being American is an independent mortality risk factor," said author Dana Goldman, director of the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at the University of Southern California.
One hundred years ago, mortality rates were improved by saving babies, Goldman explained. "But now it is reduction in mortality among the elderly, rather than the young, that propels increases in life expectancy," Goldman said in a USC news release.
The findings, which the authors said underscored a previous National Research Council study, are published in the July issue of Social Science & Medicine.
Researchers from USC, the RAND Corp. and Harvard School of Public Health compared the average lifespan in the United States with average age of death in certain Western European countries, including Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.
The United States could close the gap by reducing rates of obesity and obesity-related chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, to European levels, the researchers found.
Such improvements would also pay off economically, they said. Although improving American health during middle age to increase life expectancy would boost pension benefits, that expense would be offset by a reduction of $17,791 per person in health care costs, the researchers estimated.
They also projected that by 2050, health care savings from gradual middle-age health improvements could surpass $1.1 trillion. Medicare and Medicaid alone could save $632 billion, they said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides statistics on the health of older Americans.