The average life expectancy in the United States hit 76.9 years in 2000, the highest yet recorded and up from 76.7 in 1999, according to a new government report. At the same time, the nation's infant mortality rate hit a new low last year: 6.9 per 1,000 live births, down from 7.1 per 1,000 in 1999. Women continue to outlive men, but the gap has narrowd to 5.4 years on average, the report found.
"Americans on average are living longer than ever before, and much of this is due to the progress we've made in fighting diseases that account for a majority of deaths in the country," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson says in a statement. "But we can do even more by eating right, exercising regularly and taking other simple steps to promote good health and prevent serious illness and disease."
The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compiled the preliminary report from more than 85 percent of the death certificates filed in the United States last year.
Death rates for the country's two top killers, heart disease and cancer, continue to fall. But together these two illnesses still account for half the nation's 2.4 million fatalities annually.
The rate of deaths associated with the AIDS virus also dropped 3.7 percent last year, marking the fifth consecutive year of decline, officials say. The age-adjusted death toll from stroke, diabetes, liver disease and chronic lung disease fell also, as did the toll for homicide, suicide, and accidental injuries.
But death rates climbed for other several other conditions, including Alzheimer's disease, pneumonia, kidney disease, high blood pressure and flu. "The older the population gets, the more of these diseases we can expect to see in the coming years," says Arialdi Minino, a NCHS statistician and lead author of the report.
The top 15 causes of death remained almost intact between 1999 and 2000, with one exception. Pneumonitis -- pneumonia among the elderly who aspirate food or liquid -- joined the roster, one step ahead of homicide, which is No. 15.
University of Chicago demographer Bruce Carnes and his colleague, Jay Olshansky, have argued that the steep rise in life expectancy in the 20th century is a product of the so-far-winning fight against infections that once killed off humans in their early years. And while average life span might increase marginally in the years to come, that gain will be what the researchers call "manufactured" time.
"There are all kinds of people who would be dead today had they not had a medical intervention that saved their lives," Carnes says. But since the body breaks down as age advances, the extra years aren't necessarily quality time, he adds. The elderly can be plagued instead by eroding joints and bones and a dulling mind.
"There are always human reasons, social reasons why you'd like people never to die, but the sad reality is that we're all going to die," and probably after about 80 or 85 years on earth, Carnes says.
As a result, he adds, the focus on pushing out the boundaries of the human warranty is misguided.
"We shouldn't be thinking about how to extend lives, we should be concentrating on improving the lives that we already have," he says. "It's incredibly easy to not attain your own life span potential" by doing self-destructive things like smoking, taking drugs, not exercising, and eating a poor diet, he adds.
What To Do
To read more about getting old, try the U.S. government's Administration on Aging.