Infant Mortality Remains High Among Blacks : Americans Living Healthier and Longer, U.S. Reports

Times Staff Writer

Americans generally are living healthier and longer, the government reported Friday, but it cited some persistent health problems, including a high rate of infant mortality among blacks and a rising incidence of lung cancer deaths among women.

"Overall," said Margaret M. Heckler, secretary of health and human services, "our nation's health grades are very good indeed."

Releasing the department's annual report, "Health, United States, 1984," Heckler told reporters at a news conference that life expectancy overall for Americans born in 1983 is a record 74.7 years and that the gap between blacks and whites closed to 5.6 years for that year. In 1950, the difference was 8.4 years.

75.2 for Whites

The 188-page report said that the 1983 life expectancy for whites was 75.2 years, and that blacks born that year could expect to live 69.6 years.

Women continue to outlive men, the report said, but the gap is slowly narrowing. The life expectancy for females born in 1983 was 78.3 years, contrasted with 71 years for men, a 7.3-year difference. In 1975, the gap was 7.8 years.

Heckler attributed much of the continued increase in life expectancy to "our remarkable progress" in combating heart disease and stroke, asserting that since 1970 there has been a 25% decline in deaths from heart disease and a 50% drop in deaths from stroke.

"There is nothing spotty or erratic about this data," she said. "I am citing a trend, and it appears to be continuing."

Heart Disease Low in California

In state-by-state breakdowns for 1979-80, the report showed that California, Wisconsin and Connecticut had relatively low rates of death from heart disease, while Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Kentucky and Illinois had relatively high rates.

In an effort to explain the differences, Dr. James O. Mason, acting assistant secretary of HHS, said that "not all states are the same" in their residents' risk factors, such as exercise, "sedentary life style," hypertension control and tobacco use.

Heckler said that, overall, Americans "are healthier because they are living healthier," citing more exercise and less smoking among men.

Women, on the other hand, have given up the smoking habit at a much slower rate than men since 1965, when about half of men and one-third of women smoked cigarettes. The report said that by 1983 about 35% of adult males still smoked, contrasted with about 30% of women.

Pregnancy Complications

Heckler said this has contributed to more deaths among women from lung cancer and complications during pregnancy.

Using a chart to illustrate her point, Heckler said that lung cancer is rapidly approaching breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths among American women. That is already the case in women ages 55 to 74, she said.

Heckler linked women's smoking to their children's lower birth weight, premature births and higher risk of infant mortality.

She said the government will send public health teams to states that request assistance in fighting infant deaths and will begin an education campaign to tell women of the dangers to their babies of smoking during pregnancy.

The problem of infant mortality is greatest among blacks, the report said. Although the mortality rate declined to an overall 10.9 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1983, the rate for blacks remained substantially higher at 21.0. Also, health experts expressed concern that the rate decline has slowed and that it still lags far behind many countries. Sweden's, for example, was 7.0 in 1981.

Low Rate in California

Among states with at least 150,000 blacks in their populations, California had one of the lowest black infant mortality rates--17.1. The Illinois rate was 25.9, surpassed only by that of Washington, D.C., 26.3.

Similar numbers in last year's report helped fuel criticism of the Reagan Administration, which had cut funding for health and other support programs. The Administration proposes additional cuts in 1986 in programs affecting prenatal care and medical research projects.

Recently, Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, said: "How many four-pound babies will it take to balance the federal budget?"

But Heckler, at the news conference, vigorously defended the Administration's proposals to cut her department's fiscal 1986 budget in the face of the deficit. "The best and the brightest minds are engaged in an aggressive assault on disease," she said.

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