WASHINGTON — The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits rose slightly last week but the four-week average declined to the lowest level in more than four decades, another sign the job market is healthy.

The number of people applying for benefits edged up by 3,000 last week to 259,000 after two weeks of declines, the Labor Department said Thursday. The four-week average for benefit applications fell by 2,000 to 263,250, the lowest level since December 1973.

There are indications that the economy has slowed in recent weeks. A strong dollar has hurt U.S. export sales and industrial output has weakened as businesses cut back on orders in an effort to trim excess supplies. But so far, this weakness has not spurred a rise in layoffs.

Benefit applications are a proxy for job layoffs. Economists like to focus on the four-week average because it is less volatile than the weekly number.

In signs of a slowdown, employers added just 142,000 jobs in September and the government sharply lowered its estimate of gains in July and August. Monthly job growth has averaged a mediocre 167,000 in the July-September quarter, down from 231,000 in the April-June period.

“Despite the solid trend in claims, we have seen some slowing in improvements in other labor market indicators, namely nonfarm payrolls,” Laura Rosner, an economist at BNP Paribas, wrote in a research note.

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