Are we making ourselves miserable trying to live longer?

Our life expectancy has increased, but our quality of life hasn't

Those last years or even decades may not be healthy ones.
(Image credit: Vstock LLC/Tetra Images/Corbis)

At first glance, it seems like good news: A new study out this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that Americans are living longer than they did two decades ago. The average life expectancy was 78.2 years in 2010, up a full three years from the life expectancy in 1990.

But delve a little deeper into those numbers, and you'll discover that while Americans may be living longer, they are certainly not living better. For one, we're slipping behind our international peers. The U.S. is 27th, down from 20th, in life expectancy among the 34 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. More importantly, our quality of life has also fallen relative to the rest of the industrialized world.

The quality of life in America gets particularly bad toward the end. The gap between total life span and a healthy life span rose, with Americans spending an average of over a decade of their lives (10.1 years) suffering from short- or long-term disabilities. "We are not very good at preventing them [chronic diseases] or curing them and only mildly good at treating them," says Dr. Christopher Murray, who led the study and is director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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The study is a wakeup call for those who have dreamed of their retirement years as a golden age for relaxation. "Don't expect old age to be all golf and cruises," writes Eryn Brown at the Los Angeles Times. "As Americans live longer and longer, more of us should expect to suffer some sort of independence-threatening disability in the final phase of life."

Considering that our increase in life expectancy over the past two decades has also come with jumps in psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, and back, muscle, and joint pain, "many do not feel well enough to enjoy those added years of life," writes Julie Steenhuysen at Reuters. Americans are stretching out their days, but they're not necessarily happy ones.

It may be baffling, if not frustrating, that Americans live a relatively poor and short life for the money spent on health. Americans are actually "outspending our nearest competitors by more than 50 percent," writes Dr. Richard Gunderman at The Atlantic. The disparity between our spending on health and actual life quality can be partly traced to a stubborn, familiar problem. "The portion of Americans who are uninsured, or who are uninsured and lack affordable access to care, is the single biggest difference between the U.S. and developed countries," writes Christopher Flavelle at Bloomberg.

But Gunderman thinks the latest data suggests a larger problem in the way we pour money into lengthening our lives. "Health is not a commodity than can be purchased like automobiles or gallons of gasoline," he writes. Even important debates over health care won't get to the broader issue of changing the paradigm by which we evaluate our lives. "Before we spill too much ink bemoaning the U.S.'s declining standing in the world life expectancy race," writes Gunderman, "we should devote a bit more time to reflection and conversation around what really makes a good life."

Obsessing over how to rack up as many days as possible may ultimately just make us miserable. "The best way to lead a truly full life is not by straining every sinew to keep our hearts beating to the last possible minute," writes Gunderman," but instead by bringing ourselves and others as fully to life as possible."

So, instead of looking to the latest studies and wondering how to lengthen our days, perhaps we should be thinking more about what to do with the ones we have.

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