Not long ago, I read an alarming report that found that Americans who are rich or poor, young or old, highly educated or not, are unhealthier than their peers in high-income nations. This health gap has been worsening for decades

The worst news pertains to the health of American women, who rank at or near the bottom for most health categories assessed, in particular perinatal health, unintentional injuries, and heart disease.

The authors of this 2013 report, U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health , suggest that a confluence of factors contributes to these international health disparities, but that no single cause, such as poverty, or smoking, or access to health care, is to blame. They recommend that we as a nation come together to address this troubling situation.

The findings may sound confusing based on other news we've heard: that cardiovascular deaths have dropped precipitously over the last half-century, and many fewer people are dying from cancer.

So why the conflicting news: Are we getting healthier or are we getting sicker? And what's going on, in particular, for females?

If only the answer were simple. This confusing picture results in large part from the fact that most studies can't be readily compared side by side. Individual studies report a wide range of metrics: life expectancy, mortality rate, years of life lost, disability, and the list goes on.

And there are other important questions that provide context. Where was the study done? How many people did it involve, and were they both women and men? How was the data captured and reported — was it done for both sexes? What was the time span of the study, and how does that affect the researchers' conclusions?

We as a nation should be concerned about the findings in Shorter Lives, Poorer Health . In addition to well-defined research, with context to interpret it, we need to do more. We need to work collaboratively on public health-related issues, with our colleagues in transportation, housing, industry, and other key areas of our communities. We need to keep our eye on the prize: optimal health for women, for men, and for children.