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Decomposing Mortality Disparities in Urban and Rural U.S. Counties

Objective: To understand the role of county characteristics in the growing divide between rural and urban mortality from 1980 to 2010.

Data Source: Ageadjusted mortality rates for all U.S. counties from 1980 to 2010 were obtained from the CDC Compressed Mortality File and combined with county characteristics from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Area Health Resources File, and the InterUniversity Consortium for Political and Social research.

Study Design: We used Oaxaca–Blinder decomposition to assess the extent to which rural–urban mortality disparities are explained by observed county characteristics at each decade.

Principal Findings: Decomposition shows that, at each decade, differences in rural/urban characteristics are sufficient to explain differences in mortality. Furthermore, starting in 1990, rural counties have significantly lower predicted mortality than urban counties when given identical county characteristics. We find changes in the effect of characteristics on mortality, not the characteristics themselves, drive the growing mortality divide.

Conclusions: Differences in economic and demographic characteristics between rural and urban counties largely explain the differences in ageadjusted mortality in any given year. Over time, the role these characteristics play in improving mortality has increased differentially for urban counties. As characteristics continue changing in importance as determinants of health, this divide may continue to widen.

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