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U.S. Life Expectancy Continues To Tick Upward


We are living longer than ever before. In the United States, life expectancy has gone up once more and death rates have fallen. The latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention come from information found in death certificates from the year 2012. And the study finds that for a child born that year, life expectancy is 78 years and 9.5 months - that's a record. To learn more, we've reached out to Elizabeth Arias. She's one of the report's authors. Welcome to the program.

ELIZABETH ARIAS: Hello, thank you for having.

SIEGEL: And first, in what causes of death are we doing better - are fewer people dying so that life expectancy should be longer?

ARIAS: Well, the causes of death that have contributed most to the increase in life expectancy are the major causes of death, including heart disease, cancer chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke. We've been seeing this trend for a few decades now, so the increase in life expectancy is mainly attributed to the decline in these major causes of death.

SIEGEL: For the period 2011 through 2012, you have a graph showing different racial or ethnic groups in America and how many deaths there were per 100,000 in the population. By far and away the largest number would be among non-Hispanic black men.

ARIAS: That's correct. And that is a constant. It's been that way for a long time, although the gap between the non-Hispanic black and non-Hispanic white population has been declining over time, so it is at its lowest point currently. Back in 1900, when we started producing mortality estimates, the difference was significant. For instance, it was a 14-year difference worst in terms of life expectancy.

SIEGEL: At the beginning of the 20th century.

ARIAS: That's correct.

SIEGEL: And I was surprised, though, that while non-Hispanic white males and non-Hispanic white females, the number of deaths in 2011-2012 were in the middle and less than those for African-American males. Hispanic women had the lowest rate of deaths that year.

ARIAS: Yes, that's correct. And that's something that has been termed the Hispanic mortality paradox, which basically means that - we know for example that socioeconomic status is closely correlated with health and mortality. So then therefore, we expect that they should have higher mortality. But in fact, we've been finding consistently now for some years that they have significantly lower mortality than the non-Hispanic white and the non-Hispanic black population.

SIEGEL: Has anyone offered an explanation for that?

ARIAS: Yes, there are several explanations that have been explored. One is that it's not real, that it's an issue of bad data. Another one is that it is a migration effect. In other words, that people who emigrate to the U.S. are selected for better health, and that also some of them might return...

SIEGEL: Go home to die, you're saying.

ARIAS: Right. And then there's a third explanation, which is that it's a function of culture, of behavior. For instance, strong family ties - the low prevalence of smoking, for example, is very important, so those three are the main explanations.

SIEGEL: And for people who, say, are now 65 years of age, what on average would their expectancy be? How many more years should they count on on average?

ARIAS: On average, for 2012, that would be 19.3 years.

SIEGEL: Were you folks at the CDC generally cheered by these numbers? I mean, I assume if they'd gone in the other direction it would be a horrible report you put out.

ARIAS: Well, I'm always - and I know that my colleagues are always impressed by the fact that in just 112 years, we have seen an increase in life expectancy for females of 32.9 years and for males of 30.1 year. So in just 112 years, we've seen an astonishing increase in life expectancy in the United States.

SIEGEL: Elizabeth Arias is a statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics, and she was talking with us about the new government numbers which show a record increase in life expectancy. Thanks for talking with us.

ARIAS: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.