Americans have long enjoyed the perception that we’re sitting on top of the world. And in a number of ways, we are.
But in physical height, that’s not the case anymore. Americans are losing their height advantage internationally. Americans were indeed on top looking down at everyone else in the years after World War II, but in the generations since, the Japanese have caught up with us. The Dutch, Norwegians and Belgians have long since outstripped us.
An Associated Press story last month examined whether this really means anything. The conclusion reached is that it does.
Public health researchers agree that height is, more than anything else, a reflection of childhood care and nutrition. American society doesn’t treat its children as well as European societies do, and Americans are shorter as a result.
It’s not that Americans are doing all that badly. We’re still ahead of dozens of nations, particularly those poorer ones you would expect. It’s that other nations have caught up and, in some cases, are doing a better job of taking care of themselves than we are.
The story pointed out that many economists argue that it does matter because height is correlated with numerous measures of a population’s well-being. Tall people are healthier, wealthier and live longer than short people. Some researchers have even suggested that tall people are more intelligent. Being tall actually doesn’t make you smarter, richer or healthier. But the same things that make you tall — things like a nutritious diet, good prenatal care and a healthy childhood — also benefit a person in those other ways.
Therefore, height provides a simple measuring stick to determine how nations compare when it comes to taking care of their citizens. It offers a snapshot of how nations are preparing their children for adult life.
If you accept that logic, then the next statistic shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The United States now ranks 42nd in the world in life expectancy. Just two decades ago, we were 11th. We have been surpassed by most of the countries of Europe, as well as by Japan, Guam and Jordan, to name a few. This becomes especially troubling when you consider that the United States spends more on health care than any other nation.
Some will argue that this is a result of America’s expensive health insurance. Others will counter that this is a result of America’s unhealthy lifestyle. Each has a case to make. But if each is part of the problem, each can be part of the solution. For example, infant mortality in the United States is higher than we care to admit — higher even than in Cuba — and that statistic is probably an indictment of our comparative access to, or desire to seek, good prenatal care and follow physicians’ instructions concerning nutrition and substance use, both legal and illegal.
Unhealthy food selections, damaging environmental conditions, lack of physical activity and a basic medical care system that presents immense hurdles to people without trust funds or employers with good insurance plans all contribute to such declines in international comparisons. It also doesn’t help that too many Americans seem to be content to eat whatever they want, put off exercise as long as they can and then rely on a prescription or surgical procedure to make everything right again.
Let’s all cheer together, now, “We’re No. 42!”
It’s as if we, as a society, don’t know what has to be done to change that.
Gene Deason is managing editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.