This added burden of disease has led to higher health costs overall. If the United States could improve its population's health to have the same levels of chronic illness as Europeans do, Americans would save between $1,200 and $1,750 per year each on medical bills, the researchers found.
All told, the higher rates of disease are costing Americans between $100 billion and $150 billion per year, or 13 percent to 19 percent of total health care spending for those age 50 and over.
According to Thorpe, these findings could have a significant impact on strategies to control health care costs in America.
"If you are going to craft effective interventions," said Thorpe, "you have to understand where we are spending the money and what is driving costs over time."
The good news, Thorpe said, is that many of the differences in the study are likely due to reversible causes -- causes Americans have control over. "The underpinnings of our findings deal with modifiable factors such as weight, exercise and smoking."
Some experts believe that the relatively poor performance by Americans may become an instigator for personal change.
"What's new is that other people like us are healthier," said Dr. David Katz, associate professor of public health at Yale University. "Europeans are doing better, and we are doing worse. This relatively bad performance might be a motivator."
Others, however, say the findings show that large-scale changes are needed. "A normal weight and healthy lifestyle is very clearly a huge health benefit, especially regarding chronic diseases," said Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "There needs to be a national call to action to address prevention and treatment of obesity and cessation of smoking."
Dr. George Blackburn, associate professor of nutrition at Harvard Medical School, had a much more targeted message to the readers of Thorpe's study.
"Figure out a motivator to eat less, eat healthy and exercise," he said. "We could save a lot of money if we had a healthier lifestyle. It would be more fun, and it would feel and taste good."