Life expectancy in the United States rose to an all-time high, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said today. But that's only half the story.
The country is behind about 30 others on this measure.
Though the United States has by far the highest level of health care spending per capita in the world, we have one of the lowest life expectancies among developed nations — lower than Italy, Spain and Cuba and just a smidgeon ahead of Chile, Costa Rica and Slovenia, according to the United Nations. China does almost as well as we do. Japan tops the list at 83 years.
And in an era where advances in medicine and better understanding of health issues should boost life expectancy significantly, the gains announced today were modest.
U.S. life expectancy reached nearly 78 years (77.9) in 2007, the latest year for which data from death certificates has been compiled. That's up from 77.7 in 2006. Over the past decade, life expectancy has increased 1.4 years.
In fact, U.S. life expectancy gains may be pretty much over, as some groups — particularly people in rural locations — are already stagnating or slipping, explains LiveScience columnist Christopher Wanjek. Meantime, soaring rates of obesity and diabetes among children and adults, owing mostly to lousy diets and lack of exercise, portend depressing mortality rates to come.
Life expectancy is defined as how long a person born today is expected to live if current trends continue.
Both men and women set new records in the CDC numbers, with life expectancy now 75.3 years for men and 80.4 years for women (who suffer more in old age, other research shows). The gap between men and women narrowed since the peak gap of 7.8 years in 1979 to 5.1 years in 2007, the same as in 2006.
Other findings from the 2007 data:
For the first time, life expectancy for black males reached 70 years.
Heart disease and cancer, the two leading causes of death, accounted for nearly half (48.5 percent) of all deaths in 2007.
Between 2006 and 2007, declines in mortality rates were found for eight of the 15 top causes of death: influenza and pneumonia (down 8.4 percent), homicide (6.5 percent), accidents (5 percent), heart disease (4.7 percent), stroke (4.6 percent), diabetes (3.9 percent), hypertension (2.7 percent), and cancer (1.8 percent).
Of course, that means the rates did not decline for seven other leading causes, including Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and liver disease, all for which statistically insignificant increases occurred.
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In The Water Cooler, Imaginova's Editorial Director Robert Roy Britt looks at what people are talking about in the world of science and beyond. Find more in the archives and on Twitter.
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Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as Space.com and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.