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Health Event Rates

This page describes crude rates and age- and sex-specific rates for health events. Click a bar below to expand or collapse its content.

Counts of health events are useful, but have limitations for those who need to compare populations of unequal size, for instance, a subpopulation versus an overall state population. Knowing the population sizes can help to interpret counts, but computing a rate will allow direct comparison between populations of unequal size that are otherwise similar (e.g., similar age composition, similar culturally).

According to the dictionary, a rate is, "a quantity, amount, or degree of something [numerator], measured per unit of something else [denominator]." In public health, the numerator is the number of people among whom an event occurred during a certain period of time, and the denominator is the total number of people in the population at risk for the same period of time. A rate has four components:
  1. A specified time period.
  2. The numerator, the number of people in whom an event occurred during a given period of time, and
  3. The denominator, the total number of people in the population at risk for the same period of time. This is also referred to as the "person-years at risk."
  4. A constant. The result of the fraction is usually multiplied by some factor of 10 (such as 100,000), so that the rate may be expressed as a whole number.

info icon Many measures used in public health assessment specify a time period of one or more calendar years. This is because many public health numerator datasets have calendar year production periods. But other time periods are also commonly used; for example calendar weeks in the instance of notifiable diseases. To calculate the "person-years at risk" for a time period that is less than one year, you need to multiply the population estimate by the portion of the year represented in the numerator. For instance, to calculate a crude rate for the number of cases of disease over a 10-week period, your denominator would be the July 1 population estimate multiplied by 0.1923 (10 weeks/52 weeks).

In general, a rate is called a "crude rate" if it has not been adjusted for the age, race, ethnicity, sex, or other characteristic composition of a population.

Table 1 shows an example of crude rate calculations for heart disease by sex.

Table 1: Crude Death Rate due to Heart Disease by Sex, New Jersey, 2004


Number of Deaths

Population Estimate

Crude Death Rate (Deaths per 100,000 Population)









Using the values, above, for males as an example...
  1. The specified time period is 2004.
  2. The numerator, or the number of events, was 9,598.
  3. The denominator, or the estimated population at risk, was the July 1, 2004 population estimate of 4,235,853.
  4. The constant was 100,000.

The calculation for the crude death rate due to heart disease among males for 2004 looks like this:
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FAQs for Crude Rates:

Combining Years

Q: I am looking at death rates for a five-year period. What should I use for a population denominator?
A: If you are combining numerator values over the five years by summing them, then use the sum of the population counts over the same period. If you are combining numerator values by taking an average, then take an average of the population counts for the same time period and geographic area. Alternatively, you could also use an average over the five years in the numerator, and a "mid-point" population estimate, that is, a population estimate for the mid-point, or middle, year in the denominator.

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An age-specific rate is calculated by dividing the total number of health events for the specific age-group of interest by the total population in that age group. In Table 2, the age- and sex-specific rates for suicide are shown. The example demonstrates that the greatest number of suicides occur among adolescents and young adults, whereas the highest rate occurs among elderly men.

The calculation for an age-specific rate is the same as for a crude rate.

Table 2: Suicide Mortality Rates by Age and Sex, New Jersey, 2004



Age Group

Suicide Deaths


Age- and Sex-Specific Rate per 100,000 Population

Suicide Deaths


Age- and Sex-Specific Rate per 100,000 Population





























** Number is too small to calculate a reliable rate.

info icon Looking at rates within groups is also called "stratification." In Table 2, the population has been stratified by age and sex. The data in Table 2 also show how useful stratification can be. Not only are the suicide death rates much higher among men, the rate of suicide increases with age for men, but not for women.

Age-specific rates are valuable for comparing rates across age groups, and crude rates provide a useful summary measure to compare similar populations of different sizes, but the word "similar" is a key concept. It can be misleading to compare crude rates across populations that have relevant differences, such as different cultural traditions, or age, race/ethnicity, or sex composition.

One difference that is commonly controlled for statistically is age composition of the population. The crude mortality rate for a population depends on the mortality rate in each age group as well as on the proportion of people in each age group. For instance, the age-specific rate for most causes of death will be higher for older age groups. As a result, crude death rates tend to be higher in populations with a larger proportion of older persons, and lower in populations with a larger proportion of younger persons.

An age-adjusted rate is a summary measure that may be used to compare mortality or disease risk in two populations with different age compositions.

The measure that best informs the question you are trying to answer is the one to use. This is a guideline, not a hard and fast rule, but generally:

If the question is:Then use:
MAGNITUDE: How big is the problem? Number of events (count)
PROBABILITY: What is the underlying risk in a population? Crude rate and confidence interval
DISPARITY: Is there a difference in risk after controlling for age?Age-adjusted rate and confidence interval

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Go to the page on age-adjusted rates for health events.