Understanding Death Data

different types of charts and graphs

What are the top 10 causes of death in America? How long can we expect to live? Are we gaining or losing ground against our most life-threatening public health crises?

Mortality data answers critical questions like these, helping us understand how many Americans are dying and – importantly – why. These data are relied on by researchers, epidemiologists, clinicians, policymakers, and many others working to identify problems, find solutions, and save lives.

When a public health matter is urgent, like flu, suicide, or the opioid overdose epidemic, we need data as rapidly as possible to inform our response.

Where Death Data Come From

CDC’s National Vital Statistics System (NVSS) captures all deaths from all causes across every state in the nation. These mortality data help us track the characteristics of those dying in the United States, help determine life expectancy, and allow comparisons of death trends with other countries.

Today, CDC is moving toward a strategy that allows us to collect and share these data faster for real-time surveillance. Work being done to modernize the vital statistics system across our country has allowed CDC to release data in new ways, including through quarterly and special reports that are made available in advance of our final data releases.

The descriptions below are intended to answer common questions about our data releases and offer links to help you find vital statistics data.

Provisional vs. Final Data Releases

To use our mortality data accurately and effectively, it’s important to understand the differences between the two main types of data we release: Provisional Data and Final Data.

What are Provisional Data?

Predicting the Present: Drug Overdose Death Data

When we release provisional data on drug overdose deaths, we provide an additional set of numbers called “predicted counts.”

Drug overdose death records are sometimes first submitted with the manner of death reported as ‘pending investigation,’ due in part to the time needed to get toxicology results. Because it can take a longer time to determine the cause of death in these cases, we can look at historical patterns to arrive at a likely estimate of the final numbers. These predicted counts represent our best estimate of the number of drug overdose deaths that will eventually be included in the final data, after the records reported as ‘pending investigation’ have been updated.

While predicted counts often differ from both the provisional and final data, they can help us more accurately understand this shifting and unfolding public health crisis.

Provisional data are preliminary data that may not yet be complete. Provisional data reports are based on a current flow of new and updated records received from states. These data may be released monthly or quarterly and are subject to change as information continues to be collected and analyzed – as such, they are estimates that may differ from the final count.

Provisional data are not final and must always be used with the understanding that numbers and information may change as the data becomes more complete.

What are Final Data?

Final (annual) data are released only after we have received all death records from the states and have fully reviewed the data for completeness and quality.

Final data contain the most accurate and complete information we provide. These official records are used in publications and data visualizations, and for investigation and research, among other uses.

Why does CDC release provisional data?

The benefit of releasing provisional data is timeliness. Final data takes time to ensure accuracy and completeness. Faster and more frequent data releases may signal changes in trends and offer investigators clues about emerging public health events. Preliminary data allows us to track and monitor the ongoing impact of a crisis and take smarter action to save lives.

Timing is Everything

The timing of data releases can be complex. Different sets of vital statistics data are released at different intervals — usually monthly, quarterly, or annually. Additionally, it can take varying lengths of time (often between six months and a year, or sometimes longer) for CDC to collect and review different sets of data.

For example, certain types of data (like some causes of death) may require added investigative work and take more time to confirm. Final data always takes longer to release than provisional data.

These differences in timing, as well as some differences in the ways the data are tabulated, can result in variation between the numbers found in the final and provisional data. Understanding the types of data we release and their purposes can help when deciding which data to use.

Where can I find the data?

Age-adjusted death rates for the 10 leading causes of death: United States, 2016 and 2017

Age-adjusted death rates for the 10 leading causes of death: United States, 2016 and 2017

Source: NCHS, National Vital Statistics System, Mortality.

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Provisional counts and estimates are released through NCHS Vital Statistics Rapid Release Program and currently include:

Final (annual) data are available in:

Additional Resources
  • Data Visualization Gallery
    This gallery showcases useful visual representations of valuable CDC data, including mortality data dashboards and provisional data dashboards
  • Upcoming Releases of Note
    This page is the most up-to-date information on releases by week, updated on Fridays for the next week