According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. life expectancy set a new record in 2003, reaching 77.6 years.  And as a consequence, Americans’ lifespans now rival those of Japan.

Japan in 1985, that is.

Not to throw cold water on good news, but the real story isn’t how quickly American lifespans are rising, but how slowly they are. Since 1985, the Japanese have added 4.2 years to their lifespans.  US residents added just 2.9 years over the same period.  So not only are the Japanese healthier than we are (since life expectancy really is a good proxy for health), they’re getting healthier faster than we are. 

According to UN statistics, the US ranked 24th in the world in life expectancy in 2002, tied with the nation of Cyprus and just about 2 months ahead of Cuba. 

Now, if this were an economic story—say, if America’s per-capita GDP ranked 24th in the world, near the bottom of industrial democracies—it would be all over the papers.  But since the nation’s lagging performance on life expectancy is merely a matter of life and death, not of money, the real story gets ignored.