Deaths from homicides fell 6.8 percent, but suicides increased from 35,933 in 2008 to 36,547 in 2009. Other than suicide, which overtook septicemia as the 10th leading cause of death, the ranking of the leading causes of death was unchanged from 2008 to 2009, the researchers noted.
Infant mortality hit a record low in 2009, falling from 6.59 deaths per 1,000 births in 2008 to 6.42, representing a 2.6 percent decrease, according to the report.
The leading causes of infant deaths are birth defects, preterm birth, low birth weight and sudden infant death syndrome, the researchers explained.
These data represent 96 percent of death certificates reported to the National Vital Statistics System from all states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.
Kochanek noted that the United States is still behind other countries in life expectancy, infant mortality and death rates.
"But we are getting better," he said.
Commenting on the report, Dr. Laurence Gardner, a professor of medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said these trends most likely reflect the widespread decrease in smoking.
"And maybe the medical profession gets some credit here," he said. "I don't think we should beat our chests too strongly, but the evidence is beginning to hint at better management of chronic illness, which would explain why people are living longer with a confirmed diagnosis."
As for the disparity in life expectancy between blacks and whites, Gardner offered three possible explanations.
"There may be more violence, a real issue about disparity in access to health care and possible issues with the data," he said.
Compared with other countries, Gardner doesn't think the United States has made all that much progress.
"I don't think this puts the U.S. health care system at
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