Celebrated on April 7 each year, World Health Day commemorates the founding of the World Health Organization (WHO), and is used by the WHO to focus attention on an area that is important to global health. This year, the WHO’s focus will be universal health coverage, which involves making sure that everyone can get the health care they need—when they need it—within their communities. Even today, millions of people worldwide do not have access to health care.
On this World Health Day, let us consider world health by taking a look at the current healthiest and unhealthiest countries in the world, as well as the factors that influenced these standings. We will also consider how the United States compares with the rest of the world.
Healthiest countries in the world
Each year, experts at the Bloomberg Global Health Index rank 169 countries throughout the world from healthiest to unhealthiest. These rankings are based on considerations including health risks (tobacco use, high blood pressure, and obesity), availability of clean water, life expectancy, malnutrition, and causes of death. Each country is ranked accordingly, with a maximum top score of 100.
Bloomberg’s top 10 Healthiest Countries in the World list for 2019 is as follows, in order of healthiest:
For 2019, Spain beat out last year’s winner—Italy—as the world’s healthiest country. Similar results were seen in a recent study published in The Lancet, in which researchers found that Spain was the healthiest country in the world, with a projected life expectancy of 85.8 years by 2040. (In The Lancet study, by the way, the United States ranked 64th.)
European nations comprised most of these healthiest nations, in sharp contrast to the United States, which came in at a dismal #35 on Bloomberg’s list, one place lower even than it ranked in last year’s index.
According to experts, it is the Mediterranean diet that deserves most of the credit for the good health and longevity of nations like Spain and Italy. Rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, and healthy fats—such as those found in nuts, olive oil, and avocados—the Mediterranean diet has been shown to not only reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypercholesterolemia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and cancer, but lower the risk of all-cause mortality as well.
In addition to healthy diets, the citizens of Spain also have a national health system that is focused on preventative care.
United States falling behind
What’s the reason for the consistently poor showing by the United States in Bloomberg’s annual ranking, as well as other studies such as the one published in The Lancet?
One reason is the decreased life expectancy Americans have as a whole. Factors such as suicide and drug overdoses have taken these numbers down drastically in the past few years.
Contrast this with the projected increases in life expectancies throughout the world predicted by researchers of the aforementioned study from The Lancet. While places such as Syria and Nigeria will see a predicted increase by as many as 10 years, US life expectancies are projected to increase by only 1.1 year by 2040. This relegates the United States to the bottom five of all countries in terms of length of life expectancies.
Another factor driving America’s poor showing is its obesity epidemic. According to the latest numbers from the CDC, almost 40% of American adults (93.3 million) are obese. Obesity is a major risk factor for the development of many chronic diseases. In fact, according to a survey of the Top 10 Unhealthiest Countries (conducted by Clinic Compare and based on data from the WHO, the CIA World Factbook, and the World Lung Association), the United States tied for 10th place with Lithuania as one of the world’s unhealthiest countries, due largely to its obesity epidemic.
Unhealthiest countries in the world
Surprisingly, all of the top 10 countries in Clinic Compare’s Top 10 Unhealthiest Countries list can be found in Eastern Europe (except the United States and Luxembourg). This is primarily due to the widespread use of tobacco and alcohol prevalent in these countries, as well as their high obesity rates.
For example, there’s the Czech Republic, which was given the dubious distinction of #1 unhealthiest country. Now consider this: the average Czech drinks 13.7 liters of alcohol per year, the nation ranks 11th worldwide in tobacco use, and almost 30% of the population is obese. Not so difficult to see why it received the honor of most unhealthy nation.
Russia came in second, and though the average alcohol consumption of Russians equals that of the Czechs, a full 30% of all deaths in Russia in 2012 were related to alcohol. Consider also that the average Russian smokes 2,690 cigarettes per year, which is almost half a pack per day.
The 10 Unhealthiest Countries, in order of ill health, are as follows:
- The Czech Republic
- Lithuania and the United States (tied)
Perhaps the most obvious point that can be taken from both of these lists—healthiest and unhealthiest—is that, throughout the world, lifestyle factors have a profound impact on one’s general health.
Let’s honor World Health Day this year by recognizing that good choices that center around diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption, and maintaining a healthy weight are the most important decisions we can make to maintain our health—or ruin it.