Stroke incidence dips, but so does life expectancy

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The latest report from the CDC on mortality in the U.S. presented a mixed picture. Welcome news arrived with word that the incidence of stroke has declined such that it has dropped to the fourth-leading cause of death. It had been the third most common cause of death for the past five decades. Although heart disease and cancer continued to be the two leading causes of death in 2008, accounting for 48 percent of all deaths, chronic lower respiratory disease — COPD, chronic bronchitis and emphysema — has replaced stroke as the third leading cause of death. The other six causes were, respectively, accidents, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza/pneumonia, kidney diseases and septicemia.

At first, ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross questioned why the incidence of COPD, which is strongly associated with smoking, has increased as in the same time period smoking rates declined. He postulates that “this condition is a lagging indicator of smoking. People who have smoked for many years irreversibly damage their lungs, and the disease is indeed progressive, even after they stop. So this could still be leftover damage from previous smoking.”

In the same article addressing the decline in stroke, the Los Angeles Times reports that while overall life expectancy in the U.S. dipped slightly in 2008, black men had a record-high life expectancy of 70.2 years, up from 70 years in 2007. In addition, the life-expectancy gap between blacks and whites fell to 4.6 years from 4.8 in that same year. Dr. Ross notes that there were similar small drops in life expectancy in 1993 and 2005. “While the changes appear small — a matter of months — to see the life expectancy flatten or even drop slightly is disturbing,” he says.