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On Living Longer

Every year when the federal government releases its new life-expectancy data, I like to take a minute to think about what all those numbers really mean.

As was widely reported yesterday, overall life expectancy rose in 2006 to a record high of 78.1 years. That means that a baby born in 2006 can be expected, if current death rates hold steady, to live to that age.

The new estimate adds .3 years to the previous year's 77.8-year life expectancy. That's 109.5 days, or 2,628 hours. Will those kids use that extra time wisely?

If you can spare a few minutes -- even though you weren't born in 2006 and thus don't have those bonus hours on your hands -- you might want to do what I did when I heard the new data were out: I went to the CDC's Web site and looked up the mortality and life expectancy report from the year I was born. You can find those reports, from as far back as 1937, here.

In 1960, I learned, a white female newborn such as myself could expect to live 74.1 years, until about 2034. Today, a white baby girl is looking at 81 years. Seven years gained in my lifetime alone!

A white baby boy could expect to hang in there for only 67.4 years (today: 76 years). A nonwhite girl born that year would likely live 66.3 years (compared to today's 76.9), while a nonwhite boy could bank on just 61.1 years. (Now such a baby should live to see 70.)

Equally fascinating was the list of the leading causes of death. The top three -- diseases of the heart, malignant neoplasms (in other words, cancer), and vascular lesions affecting the central nervous system -- have remained constant, though the wording is slightly altered in some instances. In 1960, accidents ranked fourth; they now are in fifth place, the spot occupied in 1960 by "certain diseases of early infancy," which don't appear on the current list at all. Among today's top killers that are notably absent from 1960's roster: Alzheimer's disease (today's number 6) and Parkinson's disease (today's number 14). And while homicide is now the 15th-leading cause of death nowadays, it didn't make the top-15 list in 1960.

Maybe the most striking change of all, and one that I am perhaps the most grateful for, is the dramatic decline in the infant mortality rate. While in 2006, 6.71 per 1,000 babies under age one died, the year I was born that rate was 26 per 1,000 babies. Similarly, maternal deaths have dropped dramatically: in 1960, 1,579 women died from pregnancy- and childbirth-related causes; in 2006, the corresponding number was 787.

Health news is often scary and unsettling: Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and other ailments seem to be lurking in every corner, as my colleague Rob Stein blogged yesterday. So, it's nice to have some good news for a change, a chance to stop and think about the amazing strides we've made toward better health and longer lives.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  June 13, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  General Health  
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