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Being perpetually in the market for health care myths to debunk, I should be grateful for idiotic “news” reports like this. I must confess, however, that I’m getting a little tired of repeatedly excavating the facts from beneath this particular pile of statistical manure. Nonetheless, I guess I’ll get out my shovel once again.
First, as David Hogberg explains here, there is no uniform standard for collecting and reporting national health indicators. Life expectancy stats from different countries are gathered using different criteria and methods. Thus, “life expectancy” in the U.S. is not the same thing as “life expectancy” in Bosnia.
Second, even if there were a uniform standard, there is no international agency that collects its own comprehensive data on life expectancy. The WHO, the OECD, and other such organizations simply accept what they are given by the various reporting regimes. And much of the information they receive is highly suspect.
Finally, even if a uniform standard existed and the reported data could be verified, life expectancy between countries is still not an “apples to apples” proposition. Factors like crime, poverty, obesity, tobacco use, and even the number of highways vary widely between countries and have a significant effect on such statistics.
The bottom line is that international comparisons of life expectancy data, as they are now being collected and reported, are virtually meaningless. Such comparisons are useful only to journalists with column-inches to fill, advocacy groups with axes to grind, and the ever-increasing hordes of the intellectually lazy.
+ May 2007
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