August 30, 1995 in Nation/World

Aids Halts Gains In Life Expectancy Disease Wipes Out Benefits Of Falling Infant Mortality, Analysis Indicates

New York Times

The rise in AIDS-related deaths has effectively stalled the nation’s century-long increase in life expectancy, wiping out the longevity benefits from a continuing decline in infant mortality, according to an analysis of newly published data by statisticians at Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.

After reaching a peak of 75.8 years in 1992, life expectancy at birth fell slightly to 75.5 years in 1993 and did not budge from there in 1994, preliminary data from the National Center for Health Statistics show.

“While stagnation for two consecutive years does not necessarily make a trend, it probably shows in large measure the impact of AIDS,” said Dr. Charles G. Hertz, vice president and medical director of the organization and editor of its quarterly journal, Statistical Bulletin. “Since AIDS hits relatively young people, the increase in mortality in that age group has a significant effect on overall longevity for the population.”

Hertz added: “Unless AIDS starts going away, it will continue to erode longevity statistics for the younger age groups. The question is: Will improvements in other areas, such as infant mortality and cardiovascular disease, compensate for this?”

He urged caution in extrapolating from just two years of data, since statistical blips occur from time to time without having a major effect on long-term trends.

But he said it was important to keep a close watch on such changes because they could be early warning signs of significant failings in health improvements.

For example, according to the new report in the Statistical Bulletin prepared by Stanley Kranczer, a medical statistician and demographer, age-adjusted mortality rates for heart disease and cancer rose slightly in 1993.

These are the nation’s leading causes of death, accounting for 56 percent of deaths, and therefore even a slight increase can have a noticeable effect on longevity for the total population.

On the other hand, Kranczer pointed out, “even if we eliminated 50 percent of the deaths from cardiovascular disease and cancer, there would not be a huge increase in life expectancy - four, five, six, perhaps as much as eight years.” He added: “Something else will take their place, like diabetes or motor vehicle accidents. You can’t live forever.”

Kranczer noted that AIDS was taking its major toll on men from 25 to 40 years old, “and this is slowly affecting the overall longevity of men.” For most ages past infancy, death rates for men in 1992 were lower than in 1979-81, but among men aged 29 to 41 the death rate was higher in 1992 than in the previous period.

Kranczer predicted that “women are not far behind” in showing a decline in longevity from AIDS. In 1992, women in their early to mid-30s were as likely to die as they were in 1979-81, while at other ages beyond infancy, death rates for women were lower in 1992.

Hertz expressed surprise at the rise in mortality from heart disease, which had declined steeply since 1968. “I would have expected the decline to continue,” he said, “because people are more heart-conscious about their diet and exercise habits and because medical technology has improved. I would say the same about cancer.”

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