Death certificates and hospital reports provided the base on which to study the East Bay's striking health inequities.

Staff writers Sandy Kleffman and Suzanne Bohan produced the Shortened Lives series as a project for the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, administered by the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism.

Epidemiologist Matt Beyers, of the Alameda County Public Health Department, did the statistical analysis and mapping for the newspaper group.

To explore how life expectancy varies among ZIP codes, Beyers used death certificate data from 1999 to 2001 for Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

He then took population breakdowns from the 2000 U.S. census and adjusted the life expectancy numbers to compensate for age differences among ZIP codes. This was necessary so that areas with a large percentage of seniors or young children would not skew the results.

The listed cause of death provided the basis for determining heart disease and cancer mortality rates. Beyers computed an annual rate per 100,000 population for each ZIP code, and adjusted the numbers to compensate for age differences in each area.

He decided to use death certificates from 1999 to 2001 because he could obtain age breakdowns by ZIP code for that period from the 2000 census. In recent years, life expectancies have probably climbed slightly and rates of heart disease and cancer deaths have probably dropped slightly. But the disparities among ZIP codes have not changed significantly, he said.


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To determine asthma hospitalization rates, Beyers obtained hospital reports from 2002 to 2004 for Alameda County from the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development.

Chuck McKetney, director of the Contra Costa County Community Health Assessment, Planning and Evaluation department, gave Beyers similar data for Contra Costa County hospitals.

Beyers then computed annual asthma hospitalization rates for children age 14 and younger per 100,000 population. To adjust for age differences among ZIP codes, he used population breakdowns from Nielsen Claritas, a marketing and demographic research firm.

Others who made major contributions to this series include Bay Area News Group online editorial assistant Daniel Willis, who prepared the online maps, news artist Dave Johnson, who did the graphics, and photographers Jane Tyska and Sean Donnelly. Dave Dorsey, a private Web consultant, assisted Willis with the online maps.

This series was edited by projects editor Mike Oliver, deputy metro editor Andrew McGall and Executive Editor Kevin Keane.

Reach Sandy Kleffman at 925-943-8249 or skleffman@bayareanewsgroup.com. Reach Suzanne Bohan at 510-262-2789 or sbohan@bayareanewsgroup.com.