The vital signs for U.S. health were stronger than ever last year, with life expectancy hitting an record high, infant mortality dropping to record low rates and AIDS-related deaths, homicides, suicides and births by teenagers all declining, federal health officials reported Thursday.
In a remarkably upbeat assessment of the country’s overall health, the government said that in 1996, Americans were living longer - an overall average of 76.1 years, up from 75.8 years in 1995.
Also, infant mortality reached a new low of 7.2 deaths per 1,000 live births. Health officials said that a 15 percent drop in deaths from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was the reason for much of the total decline.
Confirming the impact of the use of drug combinations in treating AIDS, the disease has shed its designation as the leading killer of adults between the ages of 25-44. It now ranks second, after accidents, as the cause of death among this group.
Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala described the annual report as “a wealth of good news,” adding that she was especially encouraged by the progress in treating AIDS.
Dr. David Satcher, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who is to be nominated by President Clinton today for surgeon general, attributed the gains on several health fronts to education and prevention programs. He said these efforts “are paying real dividends” and predicted that the health picture will continue to improve.
But the news was not all good.
Despite overall reductions in homicide and suicide rates, they still remain the second- and third-leading causes of death, respectively, among youths ages 15-24. There also was a slight increase in the number of low birth-weight babies born in 1996.
Also, although it has narrowed, a discouraging gap continues to exist between the races.
In life expectancy, for example, black males were living an average of only 66.1 years compared with 73.8 years for white males. This disparity did narrow slightly between 1995 and 1996.
And while both racial groups recorded declines in infant mortality, whites experienced six deaths per 1,000 live births compared with more than twice that, 14.2, among blacks.
Some public health experts complained that the racial differential still is too wide, particularly when viewed in the context of the overall progress.
“Other gaps could have some biological basis, but this one shouldn’t,” said Dr. Richard Riegelman, dean of the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.
“Yes, there is good news for the population as a whole, but why are some groups left behind?” he asked. “There is no reason for these gaps between blacks and whites. If this (report) shows we are a society that knows how to do the job, why aren’t we doing it for everyone?”
Similarly, experts cautioned against being too optimistic over the AIDS statistics.
AIDS deaths dropped an estimated 26 percent between 1995 and 1996, from 15.6 deaths per 100,000 people to 11.6. Experts have credited funding increases for care and new, powerful triple-drug therapy with extending the lives of AIDS sufferers.
Nevertheless, many of these experts have warned that these gains may be short-lived.
“This does not mean AIDS is over,” said Daniel Zingale, executive director of the Washington-based AIDS Action. “What it means is that our best investments are paying off. If we are, in fact, gaining the upper hand, it is a reason for more commitment, not less.”
Among other findings in the report:
Women were living an average of six years longer, although the gap declined from 6.4 years in 1995. Life expectancy for white women was 79.6 years in 1996, while black women were living 74.2 years.
The rate of teens giving birth dropped for the fifth straight year, for an overall decline of 12 percent since 1991. For 15- to 19-year-olds, it fell 4 percent in 1996, from 56.8 per 1,000 births to 54.7. Among those ages 15-17, the birth rate dropped 6 percent, while the rate of 18- to 19-year-olds was down by 3 percent.
-Among black teens ages 15-17, the birth rate fell 7 percent between 1995 and 1996, and has fallen 23 percent since 1991.
The homicide rate dropped an estimated 11 percent, from 9.4 homicides per 100,000 in 1995 to 8.4.
The suicide rate declined an estimated 4 percent in 1996, from 11.2 per 100,000 to 10.8.