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Health Serv Res. 2003 Dec;38(6 Pt 2):1781-90.

On the importance of age-adjustment methods in ecological studies of social determinants of mortality.

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Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago, IL 60637, USA.



To illustrate the potential sensitivity of ecological associations between mortality and certain socioeconomic factors to different methods of age-adjustment.


Secondary analysis employing state-level data from several publicly available sources. Crude and age-adjusted mortality rates for 1990 are obtained from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The Gini coefficient for family income and percent of persons below the federal poverty line are from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Putnam's (2000) Social Capital Index was downloaded from; the Social Mistrust Index was calculated from responses to the General Social Survey, following the method described in Kawachi et al. (1997). All other covariates are obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau.


We use least squares regression to estimate the effect of several state-level socioeconomic factors on mortality rates. We examine whether these statistical associations are sensitive to the use of alternative methods of accounting for the different age composition of state populations. Following several previous studies, we present results for the case when only mortality rates are age-adjusted. We contrast these results with those obtained from regressions of crude mortality on age variables.


Different age-adjustment methods can cause a change in the sign or statistical significance of the association between mortality and various socioeconomic factors. When age variables are included as regressors, we find no significant association between mortality and either income inequality, minority racial concentration, or social capital.


Ecological associations between certain socioeconomic factors and mortality may be extremely sensitive to different age-adjustment methods.

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