ATLANTA (AP) _ In a powerful testament to U.S. health improvements, the annual number of deaths in the country dropped by about 50,000 in 2004 _ the largest such decline in more than 60 years.
Drops in the death rates for heart disease, cancer and stroke accounted for most of the surprising development, health officials said.
Overall, age-adjusted death rates fell to a record low of 801 deaths per 100,000 population in 2004, down from almost 833 deaths per 100,000 in 2003.
``These are preliminary data,'' said Paul Terry, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Atlanta's Emory University. ``But if it holds up, it's obviously very good news.''
The government also said Wednesday that U.S. life expectancy had inched up again, to a record high of 77.9 years.
The total number of U.S. deaths recorded for 2004 was 2,398,343, according to preliminary mortality data released by the National Center for Health Statistics.
That represents a 2 percent decline from the 2,448,288 recorded for 2003. The last decline in annual deaths occurred in 1997, a modest drop of 445 deaths from 1996, said Arialdi Minino, the statistician who is lead author of the report.
The last drop in deaths of this magnitude occurred in 1944, when the number of deaths dropped about 48,000 from the previous year, he said.
``We were surprised by the sharpness of the decrease (in 2004). It's kind of historical,'' Minino said.