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Death in Mass., by the numbers

Boston Globe Spotlight Team obtained state data from more than 1 million death certificates filed in Massachusetts in the last two decades. ​Some reflect the tragedy of ​newborn ​​​​deaths, others the good luck of a long life. ​ Analyzed in totality, however, the data reveals troubling differences among groups: Income and race makes a difference.

Read the “Last Words” series from the Globe Spotlight Team.

The Inequality Gap

The median age of death in Massachusetts last year was 80 -- meaning half the people died before that age, half died after that age. But not everyone had the same chance to live past their 80s. It helped to be a woman, as well as having a higher income.

Change in median age of death by income.

    Graphics by Kevin Litman-Navarro and Russell Goldenberg for The Pudding.

    Deaths across the lifespan

    Scroll across the chart to find deaths in Massachusetts at each age in the past two decades, broken down by race. This chart does not reflect current life expectancy, but a snapshot of past deaths. Since 1999, younger deaths, including in infancy, occurred more often in Black, Hispanic and Asian populations, while more white people died at older ages, reflecting in part a much larger elderly white population.

      Graphics by Kevin Litman-Navarro and Russell Goldenberg for The Pudding.

      Where people die

      A Globe-Suffolk University poll found that nearly three out of four ​Massachusetts residents​ prefer to die at home. ​But this​ remains​ an elusive goal. ​Hospitals remain a common place to die. ​Among white people, dying in a nursing home also occurs with great frequency.

      Percent of people that die by race and location

      NOTES: Numbers do not add up to 100 percent due to rounding. Deaths are excluded where the place of death was unknown or listed as “other.”

      Graphics by Kevin Litman-Navarro and Russell Goldenberg for The Pudding.

      Boston in detail

      Median age of death has varied widely across Boston, depending largely on the demographics of each neighborhood. People from more affluent Boston neighborhoods died at older ages.

      The age of death by census tract relative to the median (1999-2017)


      Median Age:


      2018 Income:


        Income levels are very low (below $31K); low ($31K - $53K); middle low ($53K to $106K); middle high ($106K to $160K); high ($160K and above).

        NOTES: Color breaks are in seven-year increments. Non-residential areas or places with low counts are shaded out.

        Graphics by Kevin Litman-Navarro and Russell Goldenberg for The Pudding.

        How we reported this series

        Determining income categories: Identifying what income level is "middle class" is ​challenging, ​especially as cost of living differs widely across the country. The Globe chose to use a Pew Research Center definition of middle class, which ranges from two-thirds to double the median household income for an area. For our Massachusetts deaths, the Globe used the US census calculations for median household income for this state.

        Beyond that, our analysis then established a spectrum of income levels, ranging from "very low" (defined as up to 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines for a family of four)  to "high" income  (defined as at least double the median household income). Also middle class is often divided into "middle-low" and "middle-high" along the half-way point of that income span, and "low" is simply between "very low" and "middle-low."

        Estimating a deceased person's income level: The income level of people who have died is not available on death certificates or generally publicly available. The Globe - as well as other demographic researchers - have ​used as a proxy the median household income of their home address' census tract or zip code. Globe reporters ran the data both ways, and the results were similar. In most cases, the data reported in the stories relies on income figures from census tracts; however in some charts on the data page, zip codes were used.

        The deaths included in the Globe analysis: All Massachusetts deaths from 1999 through the middle of 2020, except for those with out-of-state home addresses.

        Data on where people died: Numbers do not add up to 100 percent due to rounding and because some charts do not contain every category, such as "other" locations where people died.

        Some caveats in interpreting the median age of data: The Globe was cautious in interpreting trends in median age of death, especially around race and ethnic background. This can be heavily influenced by immigration patterns and sizes and age distributions of the different populations. Median age of death means half the people who died were older than that median age, and half were younger. It should not be confused with life expectancy, which estimates the lifespan of people living today.