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U.S. life expectancy slips by about a month

U.S. life expectancy has dropped slightly - by about a month - after mostly inching up for many years, the government reported yesterday.

The preliminary report indicates that a baby born in 2008 can expect to live to 77.8 years if current trends continue. That's down a bit from an all-time high of 77.9 years for babies born in 2007.

A similar dip occurred in 2005, and life expectancy also dropped in 1993.

The lead author of the report, Arialdi Minino, called the 2008 change minuscule and said it would take years of data to determine whether it's a trend.

Life expectancy was down for both men and women. The gap between blacks and whites closed a little, to a 4.6-year difference in life expectancy; black men for the first time topped 70 years. Overall, women continue to live longer, until about 80, compared with 75 for men.

What's behind the slip in overall life expectancy isn't known.

"It's something to keep our eyes on," said Ken Thorpe, a health policy professor at Emory University in Atlanta. He suggested it could be related to rising obesity rates.

The report was released by the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. It's based on nearly all the death certificates for that year; a final report will be issued later.

Life expectancy figures for Hispanics have not been included in the annual reports because of unreliable data. In October, the CDC released its first-ever calculation for Hispanics, which showed that those born in 2006 could expect to outlive whites by more than two years and blacks by more than seven.

Other highlights from the 2008 report:

Death rates declined for six of the 15 leading causes: heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, homicide and accidents. Death rates increased for chronic lower respiratory diseases, Alzheimer's, flu and pneumonia, high blood pressure, suicide and kidney disease.

Heart disease and cancer continue to be the two top killers, accounting for about half of all deaths.

Stroke fell from the No. 3 leading cause of death for the first time in five decades. It was surpassed by chronic lower respiratory diseases, which include asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

The age-adjusted death rate fell for the ninth year in a row, to a low of about 759 deaths per 100,000 people. The number of deaths increased by more than 49,300 to about 2.5 million deaths in 2008.

The infant mortality rate, which has been at about the same level for years, dropped about 2 percent to a record low of 6.59 deaths per 1,000 births. The rate for black infants is about twice that of whites. Birth defects, prematurity and low birthweight are the leading causes.

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