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American Life Expectancy Rose, Infant Mortality Rate Fell in 1996

By Marlene Cimons
Los Angeles Times

The vital signs for U.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 teen-agers 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 percent 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, the disease has shed its designation as the leading killer of adults between the ages of 25-44. It now ranks second, after accidents, as the cause of death among this group.

Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. 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 Friday

for surgeon general, attributed the gains on several health fronts to education and prevention programs. He said these efforts "are paying real dividends," and predicted that the health picture would continue to improve.

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 ages 15-24. 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 between 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 did narrow slightly between 1995 and 1996.

And while both racial groups recorded declines in infant mortality, whites experienced 6 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 was still too wide, particularly when viewed in the context of the overall progress.

"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.