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The life expectancy of both men and women reached record highs in 1997 as a result of declines in mortality rates for most of the leading causes of death. While women born in 1997 could still expect to live longer than men, the gap between the two is closing.

In 1997, life expectancy at birth, a key indicator of a population's health status, reached 75.8 years for men and 81.4 years for women, a gain of 0.3 and 0.1 years respectively over 1996. The gap in life expectancy at birth between the sexes has been narrowing in the last two decades, from a peak of 7.5 years in 1978 to 5.6 years in 1997.

The number of deaths continues to rise each year because the population is growing and aging. In 1997, a total of 215,669 individuals died - an average of 591 people each day. The total number of deaths in Canada was up 1.3% from 1996: among men, the number increased 0.5% to 111,985 deaths, while among women, the number rose 2.2% to 103,684.

The majority of deaths were due to some form of cancer or heart disease. However, deaths related to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) plunged to their lowest level in a decade, while the number of suicides declined significantly.

Table: Number of deaths by province

Life expectancy rising in most provinces

Among the provinces and territories, life expectancy in 1997 for both sexes combined reached 79 years in Prince Edward Island, British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta. Life expectancy was shortest in the two territories and Newfoundland.

Gains in life expectancy were relatively strong in Alberta, Ontario, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories (from 0.3 to 0.5 years). Although Prince Edward Island recorded the strongest increase (up 2.2 years to 79.4 years for both sexes combined), reflecting a recovery from an unusually high number of deaths in 1996, annual variations in the province (as well as the two territories) should be interpreted with caution, given the small number of deaths involved. Life expectancy fell in Newfoundland, Yukon and Quebec.

Cancer, heart disease remain the major causes of death

The majority of deaths in 1997 were due to some form of cancer or heart disease, each of which accounted for about 27% of the total. Cancer killed 58,703 people in 1997, and heart diseases 57,417. An additional 16% of deaths were attributed to cerebrovascular diseases (mainly stroke), chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (including emphysema, chronic bronchitis and asthma) and unintentional injuries combined.

Lung, colorectal, breast and prostate malignancies accounted for 51% of all cancer deaths, and acute myocardial infarction (heart attack) represented 38% of mortality due to heart diseases.

For men, the age-standardized mortality rate fell 4.5% from 860.6 deaths for every 100,000 population in 1996 to 822.3 in 1997. (Rates are standardized to remove the impact of the growing population of elderly people.) Mortality rates among men declined for all major causes of death - cancer; heart, cerebrovascular and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases; and unintentional injuries.

The picture for women was even more favourable. The age-standardized mortality rate for females dropped 9.0% from 526.6 deaths for each 100,000 population in 1996 to 479.1 in 1997. Lung cancer deaths, which had been rising for women in recent decades, declined from 33.6 to 32.3 per 100,000 from  1996 to 1997. Mortality rates for women were also down for all of the other major causes of death, except chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases which rose slightly.

HIV deaths: lowest level in a decade

The death toll from HIV infection has reached its lowest level in 10 years after soaring through the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1997, 626 individuals died of HIV, down 52% from the previous year. This follows a 26% decline from 1995 to 1996, which was the first significant drop in HIV-related mortality reported in Canada.

The HIV toll in 1997 was the lowest since 1987 when there were 525 deaths. The number peaked at 1,764 in 1995.

Health Canada has recently disclosed that although the number of AIDS cases in Canada is falling, the number of reported HIV infections is again rising. To date, an estimated 54,000 Canadians have become infected with HIV, and about a dozen more become infected each day.

Chart: Deaths from HIV infection have dropped sharply since 1995

Decline in suicides

A total of 3,681 people committed suicide in 1997, down 6.6% from the previous year. In the last decade, the number of suicides in Canada has fluctuated between a low of 3,379 in 1990 and a high of 3,970 in 1995.

The number of suicides fell in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Yukon. Although the number declined 6.7% in Quebec to 1,370 suicides, 37% of all suicides in Canada occurred in this province. In Ontario, 925 people committed suicide, accounting for one-quarter of the national total.

The age-standardized suicide rate increased in four provinces: Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and British Columbia. Quebec's rate fell from 19.8 deaths for every 100,000 population to 18.1, yet remained the highest among the provinces. Alberta followed at 14.3 deaths per 100,000 population.

The suicide rate increased substantially in the Northwest Territories, but this should be interpreted with caution, as it is based on relatively few deaths.

Table: Age-standardized suicide rates

The following standard tables will be available shortly ($20 each): Causes of death, 1996 and Causes of death, 1997 (84F0208XPB); Leading causes of death, 1996 and Leading causes of death, 1997 (84F0503XPB); Mortality, summary list of causes, 1996 and Mortality, summary list of causes, 1997 (84F0209XPB). The summary list will soon be available free of charge on Statistics Canada's Web site (www.statcan.ca).

To order any of the above products or custom tabulations, contact Client Custom Services (1-613-951-1746). For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact Doreen Duchesne (613-951-6379) or Russell Wilkins (613-951-5305), Health Statistics Division.

Table: Life expectancy at birth by province

Table: Selected causes of death