U.S. business bankruptcy filings rose 7 percent in January from a year ago, according to a bankruptcy data provider on Wednesday, as the sluggish economy hurt sales and hindered businesses' ability to refinance heavy debt obligations.

Companies from a range of industries including educational publishing group Haights Cross Communications Inc , financial company FirstFed Financial Corp and airline Mesa Air Group were among the 6,502 companies that filed for bankruptcy protection in January, compared with 6,055 in the same month last year, according to Automated Access to Court Electronic Records (AACER), a database of U.S. bankruptcy statistics used by attorneys and lenders.

(The numbers) indicate that there's going to be more filings in 2010 than in 2009, said Mike Bickford, president of AACER.

Still, he said, bankruptcy data from the next three months will provide a better prediction for the year to come.

February, March and April (data). That's what's going to tell the tale, Bickford said. That's when filings historically reach the level that you can make some reasonable judgments about what's going to happen in the year.

Per day, 342 companies sought protection from creditors in bankruptcy court, compared with 303 last year.

AACER's count of commercial cases includes bankruptcy filings from companies, as well as individuals who say they are running a business.

Though economic conditions appear to be improving -- the economy grew at a faster-than-expected 5.7 percent annual pace in the last quarter of 2009 -- Bickford said bankruptcy filings will not slow in the near future.

You don't see a recovering economy in bankruptcy numbers until 12 to 18 months after the economy has actually begun to recover, he said.

(Reporting by Chelsea Emery, editing by Matthew Lewis)