Life expectancy in the United States was the highest ever in 2002, but infant mortality increased from a rate of 6.8 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2001 to a rate of 7.0 per 1,000 births in 2002, the first year since 1958 that the rate has not declined or remained unchanged.

A report prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Preventio's (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), found that in 2002, life expectancy in the United States reached 77.4 years, up from 77.2 in 2001. Life expectancy increased for both men and women, and for African Americans and whites.

The report attributes the rise in infant mortality to an increase in neonatal infant deaths (infants less than 28 days old), particularly infants who died within the first week of life. However, there was continued decrease in late-term fetal deaths - defined as 28 or more weeks of gestation.

Three causes of death accounted for most of the increase in infant mortality: congenital anomalies (birth defects), disorders related to short gestation and low birth weight, and maternal complications of pregnancy. Deaths from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) declined between 2001 and 2002, continuing a long-term downward trend.

Overall, death rates for the total U.S. population dropped in 2002. There were declines in mortality among most racial, ethnic and gender groups, except for American Indians and non-Hispanic white females, whose death rates remained unchanged from 2001.

Among the nation's leading causes of death, there were declines in mortality from heart disease (3 percent), stroke (3 percent), accidents (nearly 2 percent), and cancer (1 percent). The biggest decline in mortality among the leading cause of deaths was for homicides - down 17 percent.

Online: www.cdc.gov.

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