By Steven Reinberg
WEDNESDAY, Oct. 8, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Average life expectancy in the United States reached an all-time high of 78.8 years in 2012, federal officials reported Wednesday.
The increased life expectancy is likely due to Americans living healthier lifestyles, according to researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Americans are living longer and are more aware of preventing chronic diseases," said the report's lead author, Dr. Jiaquan Xu, an epidemiologist at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics.
"Life expectancy has increased because people are eating healthier and exercising," Xu said.
Women still have a life expectancy advantage over men. For those born in 2012, life expectancy is about 81 years for women and around 76 for men, Xu said.
For people 65 years old in 2012, life expectancy was an additional 19.3 years, up slightly from the year before. Women age 65 and older in 2012 can expect to live another 20.5 years, while men may get around an additional 18 years, Xu said.
Overall, the U.S. death rate dropped just over 1 percent between 2011 and 2012, according to the report.
The only racial group that didn't see a decline in deaths were Hispanics. Black women had the largest drop in the death rate, down 2.3 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to the report.
Major causes of death remained largely unchanged. In 2012, about three-quarters of deaths were from heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, unintentional injuries, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and suicide, according to the report.
Death rates for eight of the 10 leading causes of deaths declined significantly, Xu said. Heart disease deaths dropped 1.8 percent; cancer deaths dropped 1.5 percent; deaths from chronic lower respiratory diseases went down 2.4 percent; stroke deaths declined 2.6 percent; Alzheimer's disease deaths dropped 3.6 percent; diabetes deaths decreased by 1.9 percent; deaths from influenza and pneumonia dropped 8.3 percent; and deaths from kidney disease declined 2.2 percent, according to the report.
Although the reasons aren't clear, suicides increased 2.4 percent in 2012 compared to 2011. At the same time, deaths from unintentional injuries remained the same, Xu said.
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a preventive cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said these "major causes of death are lifestyle driven. We are doing a better job in prevention and treatment."
Preventing illness, by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol and quitting smoking, have gone a long way in preventing heart disease and stroke. In addition, screening has reduced deaths from breast, colon and other cancers.
"The most common causes of death are due to how you choose to live," Steinbaum said. "If we can get how we eat and how we exercise under control, we can prevent many major causes of death," she said.
"We can stop being a treatment-oriented country, and become a prevention-oriented country and extend life tremendously," Steinbaum said.
In 2012, a total of 23,629 infants under age 1 year died. That was 356 fewer babies than in 2011, according to the report.
The 10 leading causes of infant mortality in 2012, accounting for more than two-thirds of infant deaths, were the same as they were in 2011: birth defects, low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome, maternal complications, unintentional injuries, umbilical cord and placental complications, bacterial infections, breathing problems, circulation problems, and newborn bleeding.
Death rates among these conditions remained essentially unchanged. The one exception was deaths from sudden infant death syndrome, which dropped 12 percent, the researchers found.