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Due to Mild Flu Season, U.S. Deaths at New Low

April 20, 2006|Denise Gellene | Times Staff Writer

Driven by an unusually mild flu season, annual deaths in the U.S. fell by 50,000 in 2004, the largest drop in more than 60 years, federal officials said Wednesday.

The decrease was a fraction of the 2.4 million total deaths in 2004, but it helped push the nation's death rate to a record low of 801 per 100,000 people.

That easily eclipsed the previous record of 833 deaths per 100,000 set in 2003, according to the report from the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Life expectancy at birth continued its crawl upward, to a high of 77.9 years in 2004 from 77.5 years in 2003.

Women can expect to live 80.4 years, men 75.2 years -- the smallest gender gap since 1946.

Richard A. Shaffer, an epidemiologist at San Diego State University, said the statistics reflected steady improvements in healthcare that drove down death rates for heart disease, cancer and stroke -- the leading causes of death in the U.S.

The mild flu season in 2004 also indirectly contributed to the lower death rates for heart disease, cancer and other chronic illnesses, said Arialdi M. Minino, a statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics and lead author of the report.

"If an older person has a preexisting condition like cancer and gets the flu, the cause of death could be cancer or flu," he said.

The last big annual drop in deaths occurred in 1944, when deaths fell by 48,000 from the previous year, Minino said. He did not know the reason for that drop. Figures from earlier years weren't available Wednesday.

The overall infant mortality rate fell to 6.76 per 100,000 from 6.85 per 100,000 in 2003, although the gap between white and black infants remained wide. The mortality rate for black infants was 13.65 per 100,000 -- more than twice the 5.65 per 100,000 for white infants.

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