ATLANTA - U.S. life expectancy has risen to a new high, now standing at nearly 78 years, the government reported yesterday.

The increase is due mainly to falling death rates in almost all the leading causes of death. The average life expectancy for babies born in 2007 is nearly three months greater than for children born in 2006.

The new data reflect a preliminary report based on about 90 percent of the death certificates collected in 2007. The information comes from the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

U.S. life expectancy has grown nearly 11/2 years in the last decade and is at a record high.

Last year, the CDC said U.S. life expectancy had inched above 78 years. But it recently changed how it calculates it, triggering a small shrink in estimates to below 78.

The United States lags behind about 30 other countries in estimated life span. Japan has the longest - 83 years for children born in 2007, according to the World Health Organization.

The CDC report found that the number of deaths and the overall death rate dropped from 2006 - from about 776 deaths per 100,000 people to about 760. The death rate has been falling for eight years and is half of what it was 60 years ago.

Heart disease and cancer together cause nearly half of U.S. fatalities. The death rate in 2007 from heart disease dropped nearly 5 percent and from cancer nearly 2 percent, according to the report.

The HIV death rate dropped 10 percent, the biggest one-year decline in 10 years. "It was kind of a surprise to see it go down so much," and it is unclear if that will be a one-year fluke or not, said Bob Anderson, chief of the agency's mortality statistics branch.

The diabetes death rate fell about 4 percent, allowing Alzheimer's disease to surpass diabetes to become the sixth-leading cause of death.

Alzheimer's has been climbing the death chart in recent years, though that may be partly because declines in other causes enable more people to live long enough to die from Alzheimer's, Anderson said.

See the full report via http://go.philly.com/cdclife EndText