Background: Asthma mortality in the United States has nearly doubled in the past 10 years. An examination of long-term trends in United States asthma mortality places the current mortality rates in a historical perspective, identifies high-risk groups for interventions, and may provide clues to the etiology of asthma mortality.
Methods: Asthma deaths for the population aged 5 to 34 years were abstracted from United States vital statistics reports for the period 1941 through 1989. Race-specific and sex-specific mortality rates were age-adjusted to the 1989 estimate of the US population.
Results: Among the population aged 5 to 34 years, three distinct periods of asthma mortality were observed: 1941 to 1964, 1965 to 1977, and 1978 to 1989. From 1941 through 1964, nonwhites exhibited a gradual increase in asthma mortality rates; in contrast, whites showed no change in mortality rates. From 1965 through 1977, a marked decline in mortality rates was observed among both nonwhites and whites. From 1978 through 1989, asthma mortality increased with a near doubling in the mortality rates in both nonwhites and whites. Overall, nonwhites had mortality rates 4 times those of whites, with nonwhite males aged 15 to 34 at the greatest risk of death due to asthma. Age and sex differences in asthma mortality are also apparent. The population aged 15 to 34 years generally had mortality rates greater than the population aged less than 15 years. For the population aged 5 to 14 years, regardless of calendar year, females had lower mortality rates than males. Among the population aged 15 to 34 years, females experienced twice the mortality rates of males prior to 1965; however, by the 1980s this relationship no longer existed.
Conclusions: The asthma mortality rate for nonwhites was 4-fold higher than for whites, although the reported prevalence of asthma is less than 2-fold greater. The population aged 15 to 34 years had higher mortality rates than the population aged 5 to 14 years despite exhibiting a lower prevalence of asthma. There are also gender differences in asthma mortality. These differences may be attributable to differences in asthma severity, or differences in disease management or reflect actual differences in mortality. These findings suggest that the search for clues to understand the increase in asthma mortality from 1978 to 1989 should include an attempt to understand why asthma mortality declined in the preceding decade from 1967 to 1977 as these may not be completely unrelated trends.