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Life spans up, death rates down

Report shows percentage drops in 10 of top 15 causes of death

The Grim Reaper seems to be taking more holidays. Americans are living longer than ever, on average, and the U.S. mortality rate fell for the 10th year in a row, according to new federal data.

The 2009 age-adjusted death rate was the lowest in U.S. history, with just 741 deaths per 100,000 population, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) says in its preliminary death report released Wednesday. The 2009 rate was 2.3 percent lower than the 2008 rate of 758.7 deaths per 100,000 people.

Researchers said they were surprised and heartened to see declines in mortality rates in 10 of the 15 leading causes of death. Death rates fell for heart disease, cancer, stroke, accidents, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, influenza/pneumonia, septicemia, homicide and chronic lower respiratory diseases, such as emphysema and bronchitis.

Mortality rates for leading disease fell so much that suicide cracked the top 10 for the first time in a decade among the leading causes of death for Americans, according to the report.

It's not unusual to see significant changes in some of these categories, "but 10 of them? That was a lot. Which is, of course, good news," said Kenneth D. Kochanek, one of the authors of the NCHS report, "Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2009."

Death rates from suicide posted a slight increase last year, according to the preliminary findings, while kidney disease, liver disease, hypertension and Parkinson's disease saw no changes from 2008 to 2009.

Last year marked the re-entry of suicide into the top 10 after about a decade in 11th place, Mr. Kochanek said.

The rate of suicides rose slightly in 2009, but what was more significant was that both the number and the rate of deaths due to septicemia dropped, the researcher said. "So it's not so much that suicide jumped over septicemia to take the No. 10 spot; it was that septicemia dropped below suicide to take the No. 11 spot."

Septicemia, more commonly known as blood poisoning or sepsis, is a serious condition that occurs when the body is infected by a pathogen after an injury or surgical procedure.

Dr. Jim O'Brien, a member of the Sepsis Alliance, was only "cautiously optimistic" about the news, since such deaths are attributed easily to other causes, such as cancer or pneumonia.

"We are hopeful these numbers represent true numbers in sepsis morality," he said.

A lot of health systems are trying to improve care for patients with sepsis, added Dr. O'Brien, who practices at the Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus.

"By conservative estimates, we lose more than 32,000 lives a year from antibiotics delayed by more than two hours in the most severe form of sepsis — septic shock. For every five minutes of delay in appropriate antibiotics, mortality rises by 1 percent," he said. "We just need to administer the therapies we have sooner, and more people would survive."

The new mortality data are based on virtually all death certificates reported to the NCHS from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.

Other data in the report:

• There were 2,436,682 deaths in 2009, down from 2,473,018 U.S. deaths in 2008.

• Death rates fell significantly in most age ranges, reflecting higher survivability rates among infants, children, young adults and the elderly, the agency found. The only age range with a relatively unimproved death rate was for adults ages 55 to 64.

• U.S. life expectancy grew to a record high, from 78 years in 2008 to 78 years, two months in 2009. The gap between the sexes also persisted: Overall male life expectancy is roughly 75, while for females it's about 80.

• The infant mortality rate hit a record low of 6.42 deaths per 1,000 live births, a drop of nearly 3 percent from 2008.

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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