U.S. stock index futures pointed to a higher open on Thursday after data showed that jobless claims fell to their lowest level since September 2008, a sign of an improving labor market.

Claims fell by 28,000 to a seasonally adjusted 452,000 in the week ended December 19, according to the Labor Department. Analysts expected a reading of 470,000.

New orders for durable goods rose by 0.2 percent in November, but surged 2.0 percent, excluding transportation, according to the Commerce Department.

The jobless claims number is good news, even though there are a lot of seasonal issues that come into play at this time of year, said Dan Greenhaus, analyst at Miller Tabak & Co in New York.

More important is the durable goods number, excluding aircraft and defense, since that's our proxy for business spending. It's healthy that they rose last month.

S&P 500 futures rose 2.5 points and were above fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures gained 18 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures added 3 points.

Thursday's session will be abbreviated for Christmas Eve, and the markets will be closed on Friday for Christmas.

Healthcare-related sectors will be in focus after the U.S. Senate approved an overhaul measure Thursday morning. While the proposed reform has been pressuring health insurance stocks, analysts say the measure won't hurt as much as previously thought.

It's been well known that healthcare was going to pass for a while, Greenhaus said. For the market, the official passage is just a formality.

The U.S. dollar index <.DXY> fell 0.3 percent, coming off three-month highs against a basket of currencies a day after weak U.S. housing data was released.

Overseas, Japan's Nikkei average <.N225> rose 1.5 percent to close at a three-month high as a weaker yen boosted exporters, while Europe's leading share index rose for a fourth straight session and remained on track to post its best yearly gains in a decade.

(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)