A snapshot of life and health in the US: How are Americans really doing?

By Liz Meszaros
Published February 19, 2020

Key Takeaways

Sure, life in the United States is good, but, health-wise, how are Americans really doing? The good news is Americans feel they are healthy and are enjoying an uptick in life expectancy for the first time in 4 years. The bad news? We eat out too much.

Since the new decade began, several studies have provided a better picture of how Americans perceive their own health, how much they eat out, and what their life expectancies are. Here’s a snapshot of what researchers have found.

Life is good. Most Americans (71%) rated their overall health and wellness as good or excellent, according to the Whole-Person Health Poll, conducted online by The Harris Poll for the American Osteopathic Association. But upon closer look, there were some disparities in this based on household income. Sixty percent of all respondents with a household income of less than $50K reported their overall health and wellness as good or excellent, compared with 81% of those with a household income of $100K or more. Nevertheless, the majority of Americans--whatever their income--felt that they were healthy and well. 

On average, Americans reported sleeping 6.6 hours/night, working 35 hours/week, and exercising 6.9 hours/week. The top physical activity was walking (77% of those who exercise), followed by strength training and weight lifting (33%), running (31%), cycling/biking (23%), yoga (20%), sports (17%), high-intensity interval training (16%), swimming (16%), Pilates (6%), and other (10%).

When asked which health services they needed better access to, 39% of all respondents cited dental care, and 33% said primary care or a family physician, followed by 24% who wanted better access to emergency care, 21% to psychologist/psychiatrists, and 19% to specialty care such as oncology, gastroenterology, or cardiology.

You are what you eat. What would a snapshot of American life be without a mention of our penchant for fast food? What would we be without our McDonald’s fixes? Probably much better off, according to results from recent study. The researchers shared results from a nationally representative sample of 35,015 American adults, who provided dietary information for a 24-hour period. Using the American Heart Association’s (AHA) diet score, researchers graded the nutritional value of the foods they ate. 

Unsurprisingly, researchers found that 70% of fast-food meals were of poor nutritional value. And the news for full-service restaurants was only marginally better: about 50% of these meals were of poor nutritional value. 

Overall, less than 0.1% of restaurant meals analyzed between 2003 and 2016 were considered of ideal nutritional quality. In fact, mean AHA diet score for fast food restaurants was 27.6 (of a possible 80), and for full-service restaurants, 31.6.

The research revealed that, from 2003 to 2016, American adults consumed roughly 21% of their calories from restaurants. As of 2016, full-service restaurants accounted for 9.5% of these calories, and fast food restaurants for 13.4%.

The take-home message, according to these researchers, is that Americans don’t need to eat out less frequently, but they should choose healthier menu options when they do. And restaurants should add more whole grains, nuts, legumes, fish, vegetables, and fruits to their menus to increase their nutritional value.

Life expectancy is up. Life expectancy in the United States rose slightly in 2018, after several years of declining numbers that were driven by the opioid epidemic, according to newly released data from the CDC. Recently, life expectancy rose to 78.7 years in 2018, up from 78.6 years in 2017. Although the increase in life expectancy was small—a little over a month—researchers and demographers are hopeful that the trend will continue.

This increase was largely due to improvements in cancer mortality rates, which were down by 2.2%. A large part of the decline in cancer mortality was due to declines in lung cancer mortality, the leading cause of cancer mortality. Declines in smoking and advances in lung cancer treatments supported these decreases.

The slight rise in life expectancy was also fueled by a decline in unintentional injuries (such as drug overdoses), which accounted for roughly 25% of the gain in life expectancy. The infant mortality rate also decreased by 2.3%, from 579.3 infant deaths per 100,000 live births in 2017 to 566.2 in 2018.

And, it’s speculated that, by 2060, life expectancy will reach a record high of 85 years when nearly 25% of all US residents will be over age 65, according to a recent report from the US Census Bureau.

As physicians, it’s good to know that overall, Americans feel they are in good health, and that longevity rates have increased, even if only slightly. Also hopeful is the finding that deaths from drug overdoses have declined, as have infant mortality rates. Good health is obviously a top concern and goal among Americans. Keep up the good work! 

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter