Investors may not have needed a reminder that 2009 was a tough year for businesses, but they got one anyway today: Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) announced that its sales fell for the first time in 76 years. That was the (last) depression, folks.

Is it a sure sign that the end is near? Health care is no longer a "safe" investment? No, the main culprits in the declining sales -- a measly 2.9%, mind you -- were smart scientists about 20 years ago; Johnson & Johnson lost patents on drugs that brought in nearly $3 billion in sales. That's a lot of dough even for a company as large as Johnson & Johnson.

With the decline in pharmaceuticals, medical devices and diagnostics take over as the largest segment for the company. Which one ends up on top over the next few years will likely depend on how recent purchases and partnerships proceed.

On the medical devices side, the company recently picked up Acclarent with its minimally invasive sinus surgery and Mentor, which makes breast implants. For drugs, it purchased Cougar Biotechnology for its prostate cancer drug and has partnerships with Elan (NYSE:ELN) and Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) for Alzheimer's disease treatments, Crucell (NASDAQ:CRXL) for vaccines, and Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ:GILD) for an HIV combo drug.

Even with the decline in sales, Johnson & Johnson did what it does best: became more efficient. Excluding one-time items, earnings per share were up 1.8% for the year. Nothing to jump up and down about, but considering the circumstances, it was a nice performance.

This year, Johnson & Johnson plans to do the same. The company is guiding for an increase in sales of 2% to 3% for the year, but thinks earnings per share will increase 4% to 6%. Keep in mind that Johnson & Johnson tends to be conservative, and a slow year is to be expected. After all, the first-quarter year-over-year comparisons will still be hurt by the loss of Topamax, which didn't face generic competition until March of last year.

The end is not near. We still need life-saving drugs, and companies like Johnson & Johnson and Abbott Labs (NYSE:ABT) that know how to grow smartly will be just fine as we hit the other side of the recession and the patent cliff. Johnson & Johnson has nearly $20 billion in cash and equivalents, so I'm willing to bet it's in a lot better shape to work itself out of the decline than it was 76 years ago.

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Johnson & Johnson is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. To see how dividend-paying stocks can offer both secure income and the opportunity for growth, take a free look at this newsletter with a 30-day trial.

Fool contributor Brian Orelli, Ph.D., doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this article. Pfizer is an Inside Value choice and Elan is a Rule Breakers recommendation. The Fool has a disclosure policy.