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Demography professor Samuel Preston said he supports healthcare reform — but unfortunately, his research doesn’t.

Two of Preston’s recent papers suggest that the United States’ low life expectancy, when compared to that of other developed nations, is not due to problems in the medical system but to the high rates of smoking in the past.

Both papers have been cited by numerous media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times, as potential ammunition for legislators who oppose healthcare reform.

The first paper, which was written by Preston and 2009 College graduate Jessica Ho, who is now a Demography graduate student, indicates that the U.S. medical system effectively identifies and treats heart disease and cancer, despite the country’s low life expectancy compared to other developed nations.

Preston and Ho found that the U.S. is above average among industrialized nations in screening for cancer, treating cancer and cardiovascular disease with high survival rates and treating high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease with medication.

Preston and Ho attribute these successes to the aggressive treatment of these diseases in the U.S. and state that their findings are inconclusive regarding whether the U.S. medical system is cost-effective and whether it does a good job of preventing disease.

Both Preston and Ho said they support healthcare reform and hope their work will not be used to undercut reform attempts.

“There are plenty of good rationales [for healthcare reform] left, but this is one that I don’t think should have been invoked to justify healthcare reform,” Preston said. “Inefficiencies in the system, doctors’ incentives that are not properly aligned with patients’ well-being and fundamentally, a lack of healthcare for 47 million people, seems extremely problematic.”

A second paper by Preston and researchers from the University of California, Berkeley show that this low life expectancy may instead be caused by former high rates of smoking in the United States.

According to the paper, removing smoking-attributable deaths for all countries increases the life expectancy of U.S. women at age 50 by 2.6 years and improves the ranking of U.S. women’s life expectancies from 17th out of 20 industrialized nations to seventh.

For men, life expectancy increases by 2.8 years and men’s rankings improve from 14th to ninth among 20 industrialized nations.

Preston and Ho are working on a follow-up paper on mortality rates for specific age intervals among developed nations. Preston said they hope the follow-up will also help inform healthcare reform attempts.

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