The Contribution of Behavior Change and Public Health to Improved U.S. Population Health

Susan T. Stewart, David M. Cutler

NBER Working Paper No. 20631
Issued in October 2014
NBER Program(s):Economics of Aging, Health Care, Health Economics

Adverse behavioral risk factors contribute to a large share of deaths. We examine the effects on life expectancy (LE) and quality-adjusted life expectancy (QALE) of changes in six major behavioral risk factors over the 1960-2010 period: smoking, obesity, heavy alcohol use, and unsafe use of motor vehicles, firearms, and poisonous substances. These risk factors have moved in opposite directions. Reduced smoking, safer driving and cars, and reduced heavy alcohol use have led to health improvements, which we estimate at 1.82 years of quality-adjusted life. However, these were roughly offset by increased obesity, greater firearm deaths, and increased deaths from poisonous substances, which together reduced quality-adjusted life expectancy by 1.77 years. We model the hypothetical effects of a 50% decline in morbid obesity and in poisoning deaths, and a 10% decline in firearm fatalities, roughly matching favorable trends in smoking and increased seat belt use. These changes would lead to a 0.92 year improvement in LE and a 1.09 year improvement in QALE. Thus, substantial improvements in health by way of behavioral improvements and public health are possible.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w20631

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