Death Can Wait: How Americans Are Living Longer

Death rates continue to drop and life expectancy has reached an all-time high.

December 16, 2009, 10:19 AM

Dec. 16, 2009— -- U.S. life expectancy has reached an all-time high as death rates continue to decline, says a new data brief from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to figures from 2007, the average American can expect to live to the ripe old age of 77.9 -- one month shy of his or her seventy-eighth birthday. Across region, race, and ethnic groups, death rates in the United States have declined steadily for the past five decades, the CDC reports.

Though this data reflects a decades-old trend, Ellen Meara, professor of health care policy at Harvard University, said that "looking at the continuation of this trend…I find it impressive is that it is continuing to move along at the same pace -- you would think at one point it has to get harder."

The death rate is now 43 percent lower than it was in the 1960s. Researchers attribute the decline to medical advances in battling heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, and stroke.

This news comes on the coattails of another report concerning life expectancy, released Monday by the MacArthur Research Network on an Aging Society. The report said that by 2050, average life expectancy may rise to 94 for women and 86 for men -- predictions that are three to eight years higher than what the government had previously expected.

The data brief, which was released Wednesday, drew on records from the National Center for Health Statistics' registration system to track death rates and cause of death by region, race, age, and gender.

Who Lives Longer?

Where you live can affect how long you can expect to live, researchers found.

For the most part, the southern states had a lower life expectancy than the rest of the country. West Virginia topped the charts with a death rate in 2007 that was 25 percent higher than the U.S. average. Alabama and Kentucky were close behind.

New Englanders and those living in the Pacific Northwest fared better, and those in Hawaii had the lowest death rate of all -- 20 percent lower than the U.S. average with an about 760 deaths per 100,0000 citizens annually.

Following past trends, researchers found disparities in life expectancy between different races and ethnicities.

For 2007, the lowest mortality was reported for Asian or Pacific Islanders, who had a death rate 46.5 percent lower than that of the non-Hispanic white population.

On the other end of the spectrum, non-Hispanic blacks reported a mortality that was 25.5 percent higher than that of whites -- the highest death rate overall.

Ari Minino, lead author of the brief and statistician for the National Center for Health Statistics, said that while "the levels of mortality have been decreasing for a long time now, the decreasing gap between black and white is a more recent development."

In the past, death rates for blacks have been consistently higher than those of white populations, but data shows this gap decreasing by 35 percent between 1989 and 2007.

The leading causes of death have remained the same in recent years, though overall rates of death from each have declined. For 2007, heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease, and accidents accounted for 64 percent of all deaths in the U.S.

Accidents accounted for 43 percent of deaths for those aged one to 24, but were not even in the top five among older populations where heart disease, cancer, and stroke were the leading causes of death.

Why Do We Die? What's Making Us Living Longer?

Researchers say it is our ability to fight off major killers such as heart disease and stroke that may be contributing to the overall decline in death rates.

"Over the past few decades, mortality reductions are generally due to better medical care -- especially for heart disease, prevention [such as] earlier cancer detection," said David Cutler, professor of Economics at Harvard University. Behavioral changes such as reductions in the number of smokers also played a major role.

Part of the decline can also be contributed to declines in infant mortality, Meara said, considering "substantial and impressive improvement in recent years…[in] technology and preventing death in premature infants."

Meara said this data is consistent with other research suggesting that areas where there has been a lot of health care spending growth over time, such as infant health and cardiovascular disease, "are the areas where we are seeing significant improvement in terms of reduction in death."

"The bigger-picture issue [here] is that the things affecting death rates are a combination of factors both environmental and medical," Meara says, and these factors will change as the burden of disease changes.

"As you get better at preventing death from some diseases, such as heart disease and stroke, it's natural that the importance of other diseases, such as cancer, will increase."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events