Life Expectancy Rises, But So Does Parkinson's and Alzheimer's

The average life expectancy for U.S. residents in 2003 increased by nearly four months from an average of 77.3 years in 2002 to a record 77.6 years, according to a preliminary annual mortality report released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC found that women now have a life expectancy of 80.1 years, an average life span that is 5.3 years longer than men's.

Contributing to the increased life expectancy were declines in death rates from the two largest killers, heart disease and cancer. However, death rates were up for Alzheimer's, hypertension, Parkinson's and kidney disease. Parkinson's replaced murder as the 15th leading cause of death in the U.S.

There was a 5.9 percent increase in deaths from Alzheimer's disease. "It's hard to tell if this is an increase in actual risk or if the higher death rate reflects diagnostic shifts," said Bob Anderson of the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. But Anderson said that the 3.4 percent increase in mortality from Parkinson's disease was one of the most surprising findings and should not be attributed to diagnostic changes. He said, "I just think there's more of it out there. ... Deaths from Parkinson's tend to occur in older people."

The United States still has lower life expectancy rates than many other countries, according to statistics from the World Health Organization.

Increasing longevity, combined with greater instances of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, strengthens the need to plan for long-term care.