The U.S. population may be aging, but the number of Americans who died in 2004 represents the biggest one-year decline since World War II, according to preliminary government data released Wednesday.
Nearly 50,000 fewer Americans died in 2004 than in 2003, according to data based on about 90 percent of U.S. death certificates. The preliminary number of U.S. deaths in 2004 was 2,398,343, compared with 2,448,288 in 2003.
The number of deaths has not dropped this steeply since 1938, when there were about 69,000 fewer than in 1937.
“We were surprised. We were scratching our heads,” said Minino, a statistician at the National Center for Health Statistics. “Something of this magnitude is really out of the ordinary.” U.S. deaths usually rise each year, he says, adding that the last decline occurred in 1997, when 445 fewer Americans died than in 1996.
In fact, some experts said they suspect the numbers may not hold up when a final report is released later this year.
Nevertheless, center officials said the statistics were consistent across the country and were deemed solid enough to report.
The drop in deaths was accompanied by a slight rise in life expectancy at birth, and the 2004 preliminary estimate reached a record high of 77.9 years, about 5 months higher than in 2003, Minino said.
It’s not clear why there was such a big drop in 2004, he said, but he and his colleagues suspect a mild flu season might be one of many converging factors. Better treatments and improved access to health care are among the possible contributors to the decline, he said.
The age-adjusted death rate declined greatly for 10 of the 15 leading causes of deaths, according to the preliminary data. One of the biggest drops, 6.4 percent, was in the death rate for heart disease, the No. 1 killer.
Wayne Rosamond, chair of the American Heart Association’s Statistics Committee, said the U.S. death rate from heart disease has been declining each year since 1968.
Over the past 20 years, the decline has averaged 2 percent or 3 percent a year, said Rosamond, a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, epidemiologist. The decline is due to a combination of better prevention and improved treatment, he said.
“I think this is good news,” he said of the 2004 heart disease death rate. “We hope it continues.”
The United States still lags about two dozen other countries in life expectancy. Japan, Monaco and San Marino had the highest life expectancy, 82 years, in 2004, according to World Health Organization statistics.
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