Americans living longer than ever

Atlanta: Americans are living longer than every before, according to the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Controla nd Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. The average US life expenctancy is now a record 77.9 years.

The total number of deaths declined by almost 50,000, or 2.4%, from 2003 to 2004, the largest one-year drop in several decades, according to a preliminary report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.

The last time the number of deaths fell instead of rose was in 1997, when there were 445 fewer deaths than in 1996.

Arialdi Minino, one of the authors of the report said: “The risk for dying in general in the U.S. population is decreasing,” Minino said. “The decrease from 2003 to 2004 was particularly sharp, and we’re still scratching our heads a little bit” as to why.

The life expectancy of Americans born in 2004 rose to 77.9 years from 77.5 years in 2003, making it the highest on record.

The gender gap is narrowing as well. Life expectancy for women is 80.4 years on average, up from 80.1 years in 2003. Men born in 2004 can expect to live 75.2 years, up from 74.8 years. The 5.2-year difference between the sexes was the smallest since 1946, the report said.

Dr. Robert Butler, president of the International Longevity Center and professor of geriatrics at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said it’s too soon to get excited about the one-year snapshot.

“I hope it’s a trend because not only are people living longer but with fewer disabilities,” he said.

A greater emphasis on controlling high cholesterol and high blood pressure with drug therapy along with declining smoking rates may be contributing to rising life expectancy, Butler said. But he noted that Americans still live shorter lives than residents of Scandinavian countries, France, Japan, Greece and Spain, and that obesity and its related health problems remain a serious threat to life-expectancy gains.

Many older people take better care of their health than the younger generations, he said. “Maybe it’s proximity to the possibility of death that gets people to behave better.”

On the other end of the age spectrum, the overall infant mortality rate was 6.7 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2004, a small increase from 2003, though the change wasn’t statistically significant, Minino said.

The infant mortality rate for blacks dropped 2.6% to 13.65 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2004, down from 14.01 deaths per 1,000 births in 2003.

Life expectancy for blacks born in 2004 improved as well but still trails that for whites. African Americans can expect to live 73.3 years, up from 72.7 years in 2003. Whites are likely to make it to age 78.3, up from 78 the year before, according to the report.

Some of the most prodigious killers such as heart disease and stroke appeared less lethal in 2004.

The number of deaths from heart disease, the nation’s No. 1 killer, dropped 6.4% to about 654,000, and cancer fatalities were down 2.9% to about 550,000, the report said.

Flu and pneumonia caused 7.3% fewer deaths in 2004 compared with 2003, while the number of deaths from stroke saw a 6.5% decline. Even those caused by accidents, the fifth leading cause of death, edged down 1.9%.

Still, decreases weren’t across the board. Deaths from high blood pressure rose 2.7% and those from Alzheimer’s disease increased 1.4% from 2003 to 2004, according to the report.

Far from being a burden on public programs such as Medicare and Social Security, the ability to live longer has produced a powerful market of older workers and consumers that companies are just beginning to court, Butler said.

“There’s been a huge boost because of increased longevity with housing, assisted living, travel, health care, financial services,” he said. “The Japanese call them the silver industries. We call them the mature market. Corporations are starting to realize this is a real boost economically.”

Butler said he’s hopeful that awareness campaigns and lifestyle changes will help start to reverse the nation’s obesity problem. “If it continued as the present, we would lose two to five years of life expectancy and it would be first time parents would live longer than their kids.”