Break out the Bordeaux and eat those escargots: France ranks first in preventing deaths, according to a new study from The Commonwealth Fund.

Compared to 19 industrialized countries, the US ranks dead (pardon the pun) last. The top three nations who do best at preventing death are France, Japan and Australia.

The study in Health Affairs found that if the US health system performed as well as these three countries, we would see 101,000 fewer deaths each year.

In Measuring the Health of Nations, Ellen Nolte and Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the authors of the study, assert that preventable deaths are an instructive way to measure the performance of a country’s health system.

But preventing death isn’t only about health service access. It’s about lifestyle.

No surprise, then, that the French also are the first who would be glad to give up “le fast food,” based on another survey published last week. Synovate found that Americans and Brits are fondest for fast food; the gastronomic French are not fans of quick eats.

The relationship between obesity/overweight and cancer and other chronic diseases is a direct one. Here’s a clear case of “we know what we know.”

Health Populi’s Hot Points: Access to health services — especially primary care — improves one’s chances of avoiding preventable deaths. That’s the health “care” bit, and the US record for extending primary care to the uninsured is poor. As for the “health” aspects of preventing death, nutrition plays a huge role. In these first weeks of the new year, we’re in the midst of the annual search for The Next Diet; “diet” is among the hottest health search words in January 2008, as it’s been for the past several years. But there’s no panacea in cabbages and cookies. As Steve Garton, Synovate’s Global Head of Media, observes, “There’s a world of people who cannot deny themselves that hamburger or extra piece of pizza, but probably make themselves feel better by washing it down with a diet cola.” We are what we eat, as my mother taught me when she first read Adelle Davis’s Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit. The emerging locavore movement — about slow food and local food — can help us improve our death-prevention profile.