Trends in Mortality Among Females in the United States, 1900–2010: Progress and Challenges

Robert A. Hahn, PhD, MPH; Man-Huei Chang, MPH; R. Gibson Parrish, MD; Steven M. Teutsch, MD, MPH; Wanda K. Jones, DrPH


Prev Chronic Dis. 2018;15(3):e30 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Introduction We analyzed trends in US female mortality rates by decade from 1900 through 2010, assessed age and racial differences, and proposed explanations and considered implications.

Methods We conducted a descriptive study of trends in mortality rates from major causes of death for females in the United States from 1900 through 2010. We analyzed all-cause unadjusted death rates (UDRs) for males and females and for white and nonwhite males and females from 1900 through 2010. Data for blacks, distinct from other nonwhites, were available beginning in 1970 and are reported for this and following decades. We also computed age-adjusted all-cause death rates (AADRs) by the direct method using age-specific death rates and the 2000 US standard population. Data for the analysis of decadal trends in mortality rates were obtained from yearly tabulations of causes of death from published compilations and from public use computer data files.

Results In 1900, UDRs and AADRs were higher for nonwhites than whites and decreased more rapidly for nonwhite females than for white females. Reductions were highest among younger females and lowest among older females. Rates for infectious diseases decreased the most. AADRs for heart disease increased 96.5% in the first 5 decades, then declined by 70.6%. AADRs for cancer rose, then decreased. Stroke decreased steadily. Unintentional motor vehicle injury AADRs increased, leveled off, then decreased. Differences between white and nonwhite female all-cause AADRs almost disappeared during the study period (5.4 per 100,000); differences in white and black AADRs remained high (121.7 per 100,000).

Conclusion Improvements in social and environmental determinants of health probably account for decreased mortality rates among females in the early 20th century, partially offset by increased smoking. In the second half of the century, other public health and clinical measures contributed to reductions. The persistent prevalence of risk behaviors and underuse of preventive and medical services indicate opportunities for increased female longevity, particularly in racial minority populations.


From the beginning of the 20th century to 2010, the life expectancy at birth for females in the United States increased by more than 32 years[1] However, new causes of death have emerged with changes in technology and the built environment (eg, the automobile and highways), emerging infections (eg, HIV), and behavior (eg, cigarette smoking). We analyzed trends in mortality rates among females at each decade from 1900 through 2010, focusing on major causes of death, and examined differences by age and by race. Historical trends may indicate future trends, contributing factors, opportunities for intervention when interventions are known, and research needs when they are not.