Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Good News You Never Knew About Life Expectancy in the U.S.

The National Center for Health Statistics in May released final data on life expectancy and deaths in the U.S. for the year 2007 (read it here). It is an extraordinary report, because it further documents that Americans continue to live longer and healthier lives, year after year.

Compared with 2006, the age-adjusted death rate from all causes declined 2.1% in 2007. This is an extraordinary single-year decline, and it was driven by impressive reductions in five of the top 10 causes of death, as noted in the table.

Top Ten Causes of Death, and Percentage Change from 2006 to 2007

Cause of DeathPercent Change From 2006
1. Heart Diseases - 4.6
2. Cancer - 1.3
3. Stroke - 3.2
4. Respiratory Diseases + 0.7
5. Accidents + 0.5
6. Alzheimer’s Disease + 0.4
7. Diabetes - 3.4
8. Influenza/pneumonia - 9.0
9. Kidney Diseases None
10. Blood Infection None

Heart disease, accounting for about one-quarter of all American deaths, declined almost 5% in 2007, and stroke deaths dropped by over 3%. Deaths from cancer were down over 1%, and there were impressive declines for diabetes (-3.4%) and influenza/pneumonia (-9%). These aren’t just one-year wonders; declines have been occurring for 20 to 30 years.

Chances are that you knew nothing about these incredible statistics. That’s because the federal government and most health organizations cast every health issue as a crisis. They argue that Americans are in poor health and are being killed by obesity, as well as chemicals in our food and in our environment. They portray our health care system as ineffective. They don’t want you to know the truth: death rates for most major diseases continue to plummet.

The long-term decline in smoking is playing a role, especially in the impressive reductions in heart disease, cancer and stroke rates. But many Americans are also eating healthier foods, and using preventive medications like aspirin and statins (that lower cholesterol levels) to reduce risks. And the health care system is providing ever-improved treatments.

I offer the following example to illustrate that the decline in American death rates over the past couple decades is truly astounding: let’s compare 2007 with 1987. In 2007, the nation’s age-adjusted death rate for all causes was 760 deaths per 100,000, and a total of 2,423,712 Americans died. Just twenty years earlier, the age-adjusted death rate was 970, about 28% higher than 2007 but still far lower than in previous decades. If the 1987 rate had been effective in 2007, there would have been 669,000 more deaths!

The average life expectancy at birth for the U.S. population in 2007 was the highest in history at 77.9 years, an increase of 0.2 year over the 2006 number. In other words, every American gained almost 2½ months of life expectancy in just one year! This is irrefutable evidence that our health and social system, despite its limitations, has sustained remarkable advances in the prevention and treatment of most life-threatening diseases, extending and improving the lives of millions of Americans.

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