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Life expectancy, and why preventing some health risks counts

March 18, 2011|By Mary Forgione, Tribune Health
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles…)

Life expectancy is up in the United States. We know this because the headlines have been trumpeting the news floating around all week. So maybe it’s time for a closer look at what factors affect life expectancy -- and what you can do about it.

The National Vital Statistics Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points to these causes of death (no surprises if you've been keeping up on health news). Heart disease is the No. 1 cause (616,067) followed by cancer (562,875), stroke (135,952), chronic lower respiratory diseases (127,924) and accidents (123,706).

Clearly you have no control over some causes, such as accidents. But some you do. Last year a study published by Public Library of Science defined risk factors that reduce life expectancy -- ones that are preventable.

Researchers found that smoking, high blood pressure, elevated blood glucose, and overweight and obesity reduce life expectancy in the U.S. by 4.9 years in men and 4.1 years in women. The study says:

“When risk factors were analyzed individually, removing smoking would have led to the largest gains in life expectancy in men in all Eight Americas [eight subgroups of Americans], and in white and Native American women. Smoking reduction alone accounted for 42%-58% of the years gained by all four risks in men and 12%-46% in women in these Americas … Lowering blood pressure to its optimal distribution would have achieved between 27% (men in America) and 69% (women in America) of the benefits of all four risk factors.” Here's the full study.

As for that ultimate toll, the new report found that life expectancy for babies born in 2009 set a record of about 78 years and 2 months generally -- that's 75.7 years for men and 80.6 years for women. And death rates fell to an all-time low of 741 deaths per 100,000.

So don't worry about accidents but do worry about your smoking habit, your weight, your blood pressure. And don't just worry -- work on changing them.

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