Report author Arialdi Minino, a statistician at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, Division of Vital Statistics, Mortality Statistics Branch, called infant mortality "an important barometer of overall health standards and health services delivery."
"So it went from [6.75] to 6.59 infant deaths per 1,000 live births," he said. "It's pretty significant. The decrease was more substantial for the black population, where it went down 4.2 percent."
Minino said the report was not designed to uncover the reasons for changes in overall mortality rates. He said the rise in deaths from chronic lower respiratory diseases should be taken with a grain of salt because the World Health Organization has changed its definition of the condition, which could account for some of the increase, he said.
Commenting on the report, Dr. William O'Neill, executive dean of clinical affairs at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said that "the fact that stroke fell from the third-leading cause of death is great news. It really suggests that a lot of the public action campaigns led by the American Heart Association have borne fruit."
There also have been some dramatic advances in stroke therapy, he said, adding, "That may be translating into lower mortality rates."
Still, O'Neill thinks the drop in life expectancy could be the start of a trend. "It is alarming that this is the first time in the last 25 years that there has actually been a decline," he said.
The increase in life expectancy between 1960 and 2000 was remarkable and related to less smoking, better control of blood pressure and advances in heart disease management, O'Neill said.
"We have seen the most gains we will see wi
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