In fact, life expectancy for Americans hit an all-time high of 77.2 years in 2001, up from 77 in 2000, says a new report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). At the same time, mortality rates declined slightly to a record low, although homicide rates spiked sharply because of the terrorist attacks.
The life expectancy numbers increased for both men and women, as well as for whites and blacks.
What's behind the good news? Experts say better treatments for heart disease are extending lives by a decade or two.
When compared to statistics from the turn of the last century, when records were first kept, the current figures are truly mind-boggling.
Overall, life expectancy in 1900 for the states that provided information was a mere 47.3 years, with men coming in at 46.3 years and women at 48.3 years. At that time, the life expectancy for the "nonwhite" population was 33 years.
Women can now expect to live 79.8 years (versus 79.7 years in 2000), while men can expect to live 74.4 years (up from 74.3 in 2000).
Life expectancy for blacks is also improving, although discrepancies between the races still persist.
"The disparities are still there, but the gap is closing," says Elizabeth Arias, one of the authors of the study and a statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics. In 2001, the overall life expectancy for blacks was 72.2 years. Black women were ahead of the curve with 75.5 years, while men lagged behind at 68.6. In 2000, the figures were 71.9, 75.2 and 68.3 years, respectively.
The national age-adjusted death rate was 855 deaths per 100,000 people in 2001, down from 869 deaths per 100,000 in 2000.
The National Center for Health Statistics, part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based the information on more than 97 percent of state death certificates issued in 2001.
The report also contains a sobering new sub-category of homicide: deaths from terrorism. Were it not for the events of Sept. 11, 2001, homicide rates would have declined slightly. As it is, they increased nearly 17 percent, causing homicides to become the 13th leading cause of death.
Although heart disease is still the leading killer, accounting for 245.7 deaths per 100,000 people, deaths in this category dropped nearly 4 percent in 2001.
"The death rate has gone down dramatically, and I think it's due to risk factor modification," says Dr. Edgar Lichstein, chairman of medicine at Maimonides Medical Center and a professor of medicine at Downstate Medical Center, both in New York City. "We are doing a better job of controlling high blood pressure and controlling diabetes. We are effectively trying to get people to stop smoking. Probably the most important thing is control of cholesterol, and I think statin drugs really, really have made a difference."
Instead of turning up at the hospital with massive heart attacks, people are now coming in with chest pain later in life, are treated aggressively and can live another 10 or 20 years, Lichstein explains.
Cancer mortality declined by almost 2 percent, to 194.3 deaths per 100,000, stroke declined by 5 percent, and accidents/unintentional injuries by 2 percent. The largest decline was in the category of influenza/pneumonia, which fell more than 7 percent.
"We do see that the majority of people die from the top two leading causes of death, which are heart disease and cancer, so reducing those would have a great impact on life expectancy," Arias says.
HIV/AIDS deaths dropped nearly 4 percent between 2000 and 2001, a bigger decline than for the previous year. Since 1995, death rates from the virus have plummeted nearly 70 percent after increasing 191 percent between 1987 and 1994.
Nevertheless, HIV/AIDS is still the sixth leading cause of death for people between the ages of 25 and 44 and is a leading killer of blacks in this age group.
According to the report, certain causes of death experienced increases in mortality. These included kidney disease (3.7 percent), hypertension (3 percent) and Alzheimer's disease (5 percent).
The infant mortality rate stayed the same at 6.9 deaths per 1,000 live births.
Access the full report at the National Center for Health Statistics.
To view life expectancy figures from around the world, visit the WorldHealth Organization.