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Let’s Celebrate:
We’re Living Longer!

With the one year anniversary of the 2006 spinach crisis upon us, it is worth noting that we are exceedingly fortunate to live in a time and place in which relatively tiny risks — such as E. coli 0157:H7 on spinach — can be considered a major problem.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out with a statement announcing that U.S. life expectancy has hit a new high:


A child born in the United States in 2005 can expect to live nearly 78 years (77.9) — a new high — according to a report released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2005.”

The report from CDC′s National Center for Health Statistics is based on approximately 99 percent of death records reported in all 50 states and the District of Columbia for 2005 and documents the latest trends in the leading causes of death and infant mortality.

The increase in life expectancy represents a continuation of a long-running trend. Over the past decade, life expectancy has increased from 75.8 years in 1995, and from 69.6 years in 1955.

“This report highlights the continued reduction in deaths from the three leading killers in the United States, heart disease, cancer and stroke, which is most likely due to better prevention efforts and medical advances in the treatments of these diseases,” said Hsiang-Ching Kung, a survey statistician with CDC′s National Center for Health Statistics and one of the report′s authors. “If death rates from certain leading causes of death continue to decline, we should continue to see improvements in life expectancy.”

Highlights of the report include:

Life expectancy for whites was 78.3 in 2005, unchanged from the record high of 2004. Life expectancy for blacks increased slightly from 73.1 years in 2004 to 73.2 years in 2005.

The age-adjusted U. S. death rate fell to below 800 deaths per 100,000 population in 2005 — an all-time low.

The death rate from the three leading killers in the United States — heart disease, cancer and stroke — declined in 2005 compared to the previous year. The age-adjusted death rate from heart disease fell from 217 deaths per 100,000 in 2004 to 210.3 in 2005, while the age-adjusted death rate from cancer dropped from 185.8 per 100,000 in 2004 to 183.8 in 2005. The age-adjusted death rate from stroke declined from 50 per 100,000 in 2004 to 46.6 in 2005.

The age-adjusted death rates for the seventh leading cause of death, Alzheimer′s disease, and the 14th leading cause of death, Parkinson′s disease, both increased approximately 5 percent between 2004 and 2005.

Preliminary figures also indicate an increase in the U.S. infant mortality rate from 6.79 per 1,000 live births in 2004 to 6.89 in 2005. However, this increase is not considered statistically significant. Congenital malformations, or birth defects, were the leading cause of infant mortality in 2005, followed by disorders related to preterm birth and low birthweight. Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) was the third leading cause of infant death in the United States.

You can download the complete report here.

Despite this good news, press reports still focus on the negative, as in this Washington Post article:

…the United States still has a lower life expectancy than some 40 other countries, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The country with the longest life expectancy is Andorra at 83.5 years, followed by Japan, Macau, San Marino and Singapore…. mortality for Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease continue to increase…

Much of this is silly. These countries don’t typically absorb anywhere near the number of immigrants that the U.S. does, and they don’t have the continental scale of a diverse population we do. To compare U.S. numbers to Andorra — population 71,822 — is meaningless.

And since everyone must die of something, if we reduce deaths from the big three — heart disease, cancer and stroke — we will see increases of deaths from other diseases. It is the nature of these kinds of statistics.

The 78-year-life expectancy is, in a practical sense, much higher. Once people get past the one-year-old mark, life expectancy goes up as preliminary numbers indicate 6.89 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. Then get past teenage accidents — accidents of all type were the 5th most common cause of death. Don’t commit suicide — the 11th most common cause of death. And avoid being murdered — the 15th leading cause of death. The data isn’t given in a way one can calculate it. But it all means that if you make it to the 78-year-old life expectancy — you still have, statistically, many years ahead of you.

It is well to remember all this as people preach the benefits of “back to nature’ in food and in life. Whatever bad things chemicals may do to us, whatever bad things industrial agriculture may represent, whatever negatives civilization dishes out — the more advanced, the more developed, the more industrialized a society is, the longer people live.

It is, in fact, only countries of phenomenal wealth that have the luxury of focusing in on these episodic pathogen events. So next time you hear the media wailing, take a deep breath and remember that the cry you are hearing is another way of saying that we are at the very pinnacle of human civilization, and even poor Americans have access to luxuries — TV, radio, antibiotics, winter fruit — that Charlemagne himself could never dream of.

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