Preventable Illness at Core of U.S. Health Costs

Americans may have themselves to blame for higher health care costs.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 1:42 AM

Oct. 3, 2007 — -- John Smith, from a health care perspective, is a typical American.

He is a 56-year-old white male living in a suburban city in the United States. He has been an on-again, off-again smoker throughout his life but recently quit -- something he is proud of.

He is 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 190 pounds, and he knows he could probably stand to lose a few pounds. Scientists would calculate his body mass index at 28, a classification that qualifies him as overweight.

As John Smith prepares for retirement, he also realizes that 18 percent of his income goes toward health care costs, and he wonders why he is paying so much.

John Smith is not real. But he does represent the type of average American over age 50 examined in a study published this week by researchers at Emory University's School of Public Health.

And according to the study, it may be Americans' own habits that are driving health care costs in the United States.

The average American spends more than $6,000 each year on health care -- the highest amount in the world and twice as much as Europeans spend. In the past, the most common reasons cited for this difference were increased access to medical providers, higher use of advanced technologies, and higher prices for services.

However, the study in this week's issue of the journal Health Affairs suggests that Americans' obesity and smoking habits may be partly to blame, and may be costing Americans $100 billion to $150 billion per year.

Researchers examined the rates of 10 of the most common and costly chronic illnesses among those over age 50. The illnesses included diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, heart disease, high cholesterol, chronic lung disease, asthma, osteoporosis, stroke and cancer.

Overall, the rates were significantly higher in the United States than in Europe. In most cases, Americans were also more likely to receive medications for the same medical diagnosis.

The researchers also looked for potential reasons to explain why Americans have higher rates of disease than Europeans. One glaring finding from the study was that obesity and smoking were more prevalent in the United States.