An American born in 1930 had an average life expectancy of just under 60 years. An American born in 1996 can look forward to a life span more than 25% longer, meaning he or she will probably be around in 2072 to note, if so inclined, the centenary of Richard Nixon's trip to China or the arrest of the Watergate burglars. At just over 76 years, Americans now have the highest life expectancy in their history. Something to be pleased about, of course, but still no world record. Canadians, most western Europeans, Japanese, Israelis, Australians and New Zealanders are all likely to live longer.
Still, progress in U.S. health and longevity is significant, as the latest government numbers show. Infant mortality is at a new low of 7.2 deaths for each 1,000 live births. Credit a 15% drop in sudden infant death syndrome for much of that, and quite possibly credit for the SIDS decline the spreading practice of putting infants down to sleep on their backs instead of their stomachs.
Homicides and suicides are down, AIDS patients are living longer, heart attack deaths have declined. Dr. David Satcher, director of the Centers for Disease Control and President Clinton's nominee to be U.S. surgeon general, attributes the improving numbers to prevention programs and wider education about good health practices. The drumbeat of advice about not smoking, eating healthier and exercising more is paying off.
Health differences among the races, though they have narrowed, remain unacceptably wide. While 84% of white pregnant women begin receiving prenatal care in the first trimester, the figure for blacks is only 71% and for Latinas 72%. Whether due to education, access or other causes, the need for major improvement is obvious.
Yes, increasing longevity is wonderful. Not so wonderful are the chronic diseases associated with aging and the rising costs of Social Security and Medicare because of greater life spans and rising demand for health services. The nation's political leaders have yet to face this issue of entitlement costs with the necessary urgency. The latest health statistics are a salutary reminder why they should do so.