Public Health

U.S. Life Expectancy Hits Record High

Life expectancy in the United States has reached an all-time high: 77.9 years. But before you celebrate, consider this: People in more than two dozen countries claim a longer life expectancy than us.

The new statistics come from the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Men now have a life expectancy of 75.3 years. For women, it's 80.4 years.

The numbers are for the year 2007, and are based on 90 percent of death certificates in the United States.

It's hard to get the life expectancy number just right, because it's difficult to know the exact age of the oldest old. Some don't have birth certificates, and when they die, a family member might say, "Mom was 108." At least that's what everyone in the family thought. But it turns out she was a few, or maybe even several, years younger. As a result, three years ago, the CDC refined its methodology and recalculated life expectancy downward by a slight amount. Still, the overall trend over the past 10 years has been a steady rise in life expectancy, increasing 1.4 years in the decade from 1997 to 2007.

One reason for the increased life span is that there were sharp drops in mortality rates for several leading causes of death, including: influenza and pneumonia; homicide; accidents; stroke; diabetes; and hypertension. The latest numbers also reflect a decline in the two leading causes of death in the United States: heart disease and cancer. Together, heart disease and cancer accounted for just under half of all the deaths.

Other interesting tidbits from the report:

— For the first time, life expectancy for black males reached 70 years.

— Alzheimer's disease became the sixth leading cause of death, surpassing diabetes, which now ranks seventh. The number of deaths from Alzheimer's remained steady, but there was a 3.9 percent drop in the number of deaths by diabetes. Also, as people live longer, more develop Alzheimer's.

Still, the world leader for longevity is Japan. Life expectancy there is 79 years for men and 86 years for women, according to the World Health Organization.

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