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Nation Healthier Than Ever, Officials Report

Statistics: Life expectancy hit high of 76.1 and infant deaths were at record low last year, U.S. says.


WASHINGTON — The vital signs for the nation's health were stronger than ever last year, with life expectancy hitting an all-time 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% 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, officials said that the disease has shed its designation as the leading killer of adults between the ages of 25 to 44. It now ranks second, after accidents, among causes of death for this group.

Health and Human Services Secretary Donna 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 as surgeon general, attributed the gains on several health fronts to education and prevention programs. He said that these efforts "are paying real dividends" and predicted that the health picture will continue to improve.

Jack Wagner, manager of the research center for the Orange County Health Care Agency, said the "same trends are true for Orange County. We are an extremely healthy county."

Wagner said that based on preliminary 1996 data, county residents were living longer, fewer infants died, and fewer people died of AIDS-related illnesses.

But the news was not all good.

Despite overall reductions in homicide and suicide rates, they still remained the second and third leading causes of death, respectively, among youths 15 to 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 among the races.

In life expectancy, for example, black males were living an average of only 66.1 years, compared to 73.8 years for white males. This disparity narrowed slightly between 1995 and 1996. And while both racial groups recorded declines in infant mortality, whites experienced 6.0 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to 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 overall progress on health matters.

"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 said. "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% between 1995 and 1996, from 15.6 deaths per 100,000 population 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 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."

Riegelman agreed, saying that "the big danger here is that these temporary benefits will overshadow the need for long-term prevention."

The report was issued by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics and based on data from birth and death certificates filed in the states and reported to the government's National Vital Statistics System.

Among its other findings:

* Women were still living an average of six years longer than men, 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 teen birth rate dropped for the fifth straight year, for an overall decline of 12% since 1991. For 15- to 19-year-olds, it fell 4% in 1996, from 56.8 per 1,000 births to 54.7. Among those 15 to 17, the birth rate dropped 6%, while the rate of 18- to 19-year-olds was down by 3%.

* Among black teenagers 15 to 17, the birthrate fell 7% between 1995 and 1996, and has fallen 23% since 1991.

* The homicide rate dropped an estimated 11%, from 9.4 homicides per 100,000 in 1995 to 8.4 last year.

* The proportion of mothers who began receiving prenatal care during the first trimester of pregnancy rose from 81% in 1995 to 82% last year. The number was 84% for white women; 71% for blacks and 72% for Latinas.

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