Open Access Research article

Calculating expected years of life lost for assessing local ethnic disparities in causes of premature death

Tomás J Aragón123*, Daphne Y Lichtensztajn2, Brian S Katcher2, Randy Reiter2 and Mitchell H Katz23

Author Affiliations

1 Division of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley, California, USA

2 Community Health Epidemiology, San Francisco Department of Public Health, San Francisco, California, USA

3 Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of California, San Francisco, California, USA

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BMC Public Health 2008, 8:116  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-8-116

Published: 10 April 2008



A core function of local health departments is to conduct health assessments. The analysis of death certificates provides information on diseases, conditions, and injuries that are likely to cause death – an important outcome indicator of population health. The expected years of life lost (Y LL) measure is a valid, stand-alone measure for identifying and ranking the underlying causes of premature death. The purpose of this study was to rank the leading causes of premature death among San Francisco residents, and to share detailed methods so that these analyses can be used in other local health jurisdications.


Using death registry data and population estimates for San Francisco deaths in 2003–2004, we calculated the number of deaths, Y LL, and age-standardized Y LL rates (ASY Rs). The results were stratified by sex, ethnicity, and underlying cause of death. The Y LL values were used to rank the leading causes of premature death for men and women, and by ethnicity.


In the years 2003–2004, 6312 men died (73,627 years of life lost), and 5726 women died (51,194 years of life lost). The ASY R for men was 65% higher compared to the ASY R for women (8971.1 vs. 5438.6 per 100,000 persons per year). The leading causes of premature deaths are those with the largest average Y LLs and are largely preventable. Among men, these were HIV/AIDS, suicide, drug overdose, homicide, and alcohol use disorder; and among women, these were lung cancer, breast cancer, hypertensive heart disease, colon cancer, and diabetes mellitus. A large health disparity exists between African Americans and other ethnic groups: African American age-adjusted overall and cause-specific Y LL rates were higher, especially for homicide among men. Except for homicide among Latino men, Latinos and Asians have comparable or lower Y LL rates among the leading causes of death compared to whites.


Local death registry data can be used to measure, rank, and monitor the leading causes of premature death, and to measure and monitor ethnic health disparities.