Health Buzz: U.S. Life Expectancy Hits All-Time High

Dietary changes to make as you age; work out now, weigh less in middle age.

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U.S. Life Expectancy Rises, While Death Rate Falls

Life expectancy in the United States has hit an all-time high and is steadily climbing. Children born in 2009 will live an average of 78 years and 2 months, up from 78 years in 2008, according to preliminary data released Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2008 and 2009, life expectancy rose two-tenths of a year for men to 75.7 years and one-tenth of a year for women to 80.6 years. That's in stark contrast to 1930, when life expectancy was 58 for men and 62 for women. Meanwhile, the U.S. death rate also dipped to a record low: About 2.4 million Americans died in 2009—36,000 fewer than the year before. Deaths were down for a range of conditions, too, including heart disease (with a 3.7 percent drop), stroke (4.2 percent), Alzheimer's disease (4.1 percent), diabetes (4.1 percent), and cancer (1.1 percent). The agency speculates that better medical treatment, vaccination campaigns, and public health measures against smoking are likely driving these trends, and plans to more closely analyze the reasons for the decline when final data is released later this year.

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  • We Will Be What We Eat: Dietary Changes to Make as You Age

    If your mental image of an older person is someone frail and thin, it may be time for an update. For the generation currently moving through middle age and beyond, a new concern is, well, growing: obesity. "We're already seeing a large number of obese elderly, and if we don't do something, that figure is sure to rise," laments David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and author of The End of Overeating. Government figures show that Americans in their 60s today are about 10 pounds heavier than their counterparts of just a decade ago, U.S. News reported in 2009. And an even more worrisome bulge is coming: A typical woman in her 40s now weighs 168 pounds, versus 143 pounds in the 1960s. "People used to start midlife [at a lower weight] and then lose weight when they got into their 50s, but that doesn't happen as much anymore," Kessler says.

    If you're entering that danger zone now, be aware that it's not going to get any easier to lose weight, because people need fewer calories as they age. Blame slowing metabolism and the body's tendency starting in midlife to lose muscle mass—a process known as sarcopenia—and gain fat, especially around the abdomen. (Fat burns fewer calories than does muscle.) "All that conspires to make it harder for people to maintain the same body weight when they eat their usual diets," says Alice H. Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University. "People have fewer discretionary calories to play with, so they need to make better food choices." [Read more: We Will Be What We Eat: Dietary Changes to Make as You Age.]

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    • Work Out Now, Weigh Less in Middle Age

      Everybody knows the importance of exercise in keeping weight down. What's more surprising is that physical activity in the present may prevent weight gain many years into the future, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers who followed 3,554 people over two decades found that men who stayed highly active gained six pounds less on average after 20 years than their low-activity counterparts did. For women, the difference was a whopping 13 pounds. Waistlines were trimmer for both sexes in the high-activity groups as well. Those studied began as 18- to 30-year-olds. Their 38- to 50-year-old selves showed that consistent commitment to physical activity may mean fewer pounds tacked on during the years notoriously threatened by jiggly bellies.

      Highly active, moreover, doesn't necessarily mean marathoning or pumping iron for an hour, U.S. News's Kurtis Hiatt reports. While the study used a complex formula that assigned scores according to how long, how often, and how intense the participants' activities were, highly active was equivalent to spending roughly 2½ hours a week getting your heart pumping, like in a sport, brisk walking, or even gardening, says Arlene Hankinson, lead author of the study and an instructor in the department of preventative medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. [Read more: Work Out Now, Weigh Less in Middle Age.]