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Health Rankings: Death Comes Early in Some Colorado Counties

Fourth in a series of blogs by the Colorado Health Institute reporting on the 2018 County Health Rankings

Living in Huerfano County means that you are twice as likely as the average Coloradan to die young. Residents of several other southern Colorado counties are experiencing premature death at nearly the same high rate.

The new data showing wide statewide variations in the rate of deaths before age 75 are from the 2018 County Health Rankings report, released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation this month. (The premature death statistics in the 2018 report are from the years 2014 through 2016.)

Premature death is a key indicator of poor overall health within a community and can shed light on other factors that contribute to poor health outcomes.

Premature death is calculated as Years of Potential Life Lost (YPLL). All deaths before age 75 during a three-year period are summed and then divided by the county’s population. This number is multiplied by 100,000, yielding a county’s YPLL per 100,000 residents. Colorado’s state average YPLL score is 5,732 The YPLL score in Huerfano County, the state’s highest, is 12,425.

The top five counties with the highest early death rates, following Huerfano County, are Otero County (10,482); Crowley County (10,150); Costilla County (10,096); and Sedgwick County (9,889). (See the accompanying map.)

Douglas County residents are least likely to die early with a YPLL score of 3,309. The other counties with good scores are Summit (3,993); Broomfield (4,025); Boulder (4,215; and Eagle (4,328).


The data show wide — and perhaps unexpected — variations when it comes to race and ethnicity and early death. Hispanic Coloradans often fall behind their white counterparts in many health indicators, but in some counties, they are less likely to die early that white Coloradans.

The highest rate of premature death for white Coloradans — 18,134 — is in Costilla County, followed by Huerfano County (11,994), Otero County (10,134), Saguache County (8,792) and Morgan County (8,789).

The lowest early death rates for white Coloradans are in Douglas County (3,376); Broomfield County (4,032); Boulder County (4,238); Eagle County (4,698); and Larimer County (4,927).

The highest rate of premature death for Hispanic Coloradans — 13,858 — is in Las Animas County followed by Huerfano County (13,719); Otero County (11,463); Saguache County (10,196); and Conejos County (9,866).

The lowest rate of premature death for Hispanics is in Delta County — 2,894 — followed by Douglas County (3,108); Eagle County (3,361); Garfield County (4,000); and Boulder County (4,549).

The widest gap between whites and Hispanics occurs in Costilla county where white Coloradans report 18,134 YPLL and Hispanics report 8,390, the state’s highest difference at 9,744.

There are major gaps among racial groups within counties. In Denver and Pueblo, black Coloradans had significantly higher rates of premature death than white Coloradans and Hispanic Coloradans: In Denver, black Coloradans had a score of 11,790, compared to 6,757 for Hispanic residents and 5,662 for white residents.

Data for premature death rates among black Coloradans is limited to eight urban counties because of population size. Denver County had the highest rate, followed by Pueblo County (10,239); Adams County (8,066); El Paso County (7,767); and Arapahoe County (6,987).

Social and economic factors combine to create a large disparity between county premature death rates. Seven of the 10 counties with the highest premature death scores also perform poorly on social and economic factors such as education, employment, income and violent crime.

Drug overdoses also contribute to the disparities. Huerfano County, which has the state’s highest premature death rate, also  had the state’s highest drug overdose rate in 2016 (152.6 deaths per 100,000 people).

Suicide likely plays a role, as well. The County Health Rankings do not report separate data on suicides. Instead, these deaths are reported as injury-related, along with homicide and other injuries.

Las Animas County reported the highest rate of injury deaths with 158 per 100,000. Its premature death score is the state’s sixth highest.

Ouray County, an otherwise healthy county, ranks 12th highest for premature death, most likely due to its high injury death rate — 129 deaths per 100,000.

Looking at premature mortality rates provides insight into the overall health of the community as well as social factors contributing to early death.  

Find Eli Boone on Twitter: @CHI_EliB

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