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Americans’ life expectancy hits record, study finds

WASHINGTON – Americans’ life expectancy reached a record high of 78.1 years in 2006, with disparities among ethnic groups and between the sexes generally narrowing, according to government data released Wednesday.

The death rates from most diseases went down, with influenza mortality falling steeply and AIDS mortality marking its 10th straight year of decline. Infant mortality in 2006 also fell from the previous year, continuing a trend stretching back nearly 50 years.

“This report has a lot of good news,” said Melonie Heron, a demographer at the National Center for Health Statistics who compiled and analyzed the data drawn from death certificates filed with each state and the District.

The favorable trends appear to contradict reports of shortening life spans in some Americans, specifically women living in rural parts of the South and Midwest. The new report, however, did not examine mortality at that level of detail. The two trends – overall national improvement, with certain subgroups doing worse – are not incompatible, experts noted.

The 2006 data also provide more evidence for what demographers term the “Hispanic Paradox” – as a group they have much lower mortality rates than expected for a population of relatively less education and wealth.

The overall U.S. life expectancy of 78.1 years was up 0.3 years from 2005. Life expectancy for women was 80.7 years, and for men, 75.4 years. The disparity between the sexes – 5.3 years – has been declining since it peaked at about 8 years in 1979.

White women had the longest life expectancy, at 81 years, followed by black women (76.9 years), white men (76 years) and black men (70 years).

Life expectancy is the calculation of how long a newborn could expect to live if the mortality rates at birth prevailed for a lifetime.