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Past Smoking And Current Obesity Hurt Americans' Longevity

A neon sign for Camel cigarettes near Times Square in New York City, circa 1958.
A neon sign for Camel cigarettes near Times Square in New York City, circa 1958.

The State of the Union speech Tuesday night stirred up a lot of talk about the growing federal deficit and how it may weigh on America's future.

But the nation is already paying a price for a health debt of sorts. Americans' passion for smoking decades ago is cutting lives short now, according to a report from the National Research Council released Tuesday.

Yes, it's true, the researchers note, that Americans are living longer than they used to. The problem is that for the last 25 years our lifespans haven't grown nearly as fast as those for citizens of other wealthy countries.

Between 1980 and 2006, the life expectancy for males born in the United States rose by 5 1/2 years — or about 2 years per decade — to 75.1 years. That sounds great, but the improvement was lower than the average increase for 21 other well-to-do countries.

For women, lifespans rose by a little more than 3 years to 80.7 years over the same period. And, again, that was less than the average for other wealthy nations.

The researchers conclude that the delayed health effects of smoking, which was much more popular in America 30 to 50 years ago than elsewhere, is a big reason for the discrepancy.

The good news is that American men may see improvements before long because their smoking habits are well past the peak. Women, on the other hand, took longer to cut back and the toll of smoking will be around longer.

Bulging waistlines in this country will continue to spell trouble. Two-thirds of Americans are now either overweight or obese, and the researchers say our weight problems may explain as much as a third of the gap longevity here and elsewhere.

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Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.