THURSDAY, Dec. 9, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Life expectancy dipped slightly in the United States from 2007 to 2008, according to a new federal report.
Life expectancy for Americans in general declined by a little more than one month, from 77.9 to 77.8 years. For women, the average life expectancy dropped by a tenth of one year, to 80.3 years; for men it also dropped by the same amount, to 75.3 years.
For the first time in 50 years, stroke was not the third-leading cause of death; it was overtaken by chronic lower respiratory diseases such as asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. The age-adjusted death rates for stroke dropped 3.8 percent from 2007 to 2008, while rates for chronic lower respiratory diseases rose 7.8 percent, according to the report, released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Broken down by race, life expectancy slipped 0.2 years for whites. Life expectancy for black women remained unchanged at 76.8 years in 2008, while life expectancy for black men hit a record high -- 70.2 years -- although they still live nearly eight fewer years, on average, than white men. The difference in life expectancy between the white and black populations was 4.6 years in 2008, a 0.2 year drop from 2007.
Heart disease and cancer, which are the two leading causes of death in the United States, still accounted for nearly half -- 48 percent -- of all deaths in 2008.
Death rates rose noticeably in 2008 from several other causes other than respiratory diseases -- Alzheimer's disease (up 7.5 percent), influenza and pneumonia (up 4.9 percent), hypertension, or high blood pressure (up 4.1 percent), suicide (up 2.7 percent), and kidney disease (up 2.1 percent).
On the positive front, infant mortality rates fell to an all-time low in 2008, declining to 6.59 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2008, from 6.75 in 2007. Birth defects were the leading cause of infant mortality in 2008, followed by health problems connected with preterm birth and low birthweight. Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) was the third leading cause of infant death in the United States, according to the report.
Report author Arialdi Minino, a statistician at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, Division of Vital Statistics, Mortality Statistics Branch, called infant mortality "an important barometer of overall health standards and health services delivery."
"So it went from [6.75] to 6.59 infant deaths per 1,000 live births," he said. "It's pretty significant. The decrease was more substantial for the black population, where it went down 4.2 percent."
Minino said the report was not designed to uncover the reasons for changes in overall mortality rates. He said the rise in deaths from chronic lower respiratory diseases should be taken with a grain of salt because the World Health Organization has changed its definition of the condition, which could account for some of the increase, he said.
Commenting on the report, Dr. William O'Neill, executive dean of clinical affairs at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said that "the fact that stroke fell from the third-leading cause of death is great news. It really suggests that a lot of the public action campaigns led by the American Heart Association have borne fruit."
There also have been some dramatic advances in stroke therapy, he said, adding, "That may be translating into lower mortality rates."
Still, O'Neill thinks the drop in life expectancy could be the start of a trend. "It is alarming that this is the first time in the last 25 years that there has actually been a decline," he said.
The increase in life expectancy between 1960 and 2000 was remarkable and related to less smoking, better control of blood pressure and advances in heart disease management, O'Neill said.
"We have seen the most gains we will see with those measures, and now other risk factors are coming up to propel heart disease again," he said. "My biggest concern is that we have been seeing this looming epidemic of obesity, and obesity is going to start taking over -- obesity leading to diabetes, leading to heart disease, is going to start becoming more of a problem."
The report, titled: Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2008, was based on an initial analysis of approximately 99 percent of death certificates from around the country.
For more on U.S. death rates, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.