We examined the 16-year mortality experience among participants in the baseline examination (1985-86) of the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Study, a U.S. cohort of 5115 urban adults initially 18-30 years old and balanced by sex and race (black and whites) in the USA. We observed 127 deaths (annual mortality of 0.15%). Compared to white women, the rate ratio (95% confidence interval) of all-cause mortality was 9.3 (4.4, 19.4) among black men, 5.3 (2.5, 11.4) among white men and 2.7 (1.2, 6.1) among black women. The predominant causes of death, which also differed greatly by sex-race, were AIDS (28% of deaths), homicide (16%), unintentional injury (10%), suicide (7%), cancer (7%) and coronary disease (7%). The significant baseline predictors of all-cause mortality in multivariate analysis were male sex, black race, diabetes, self-reported liver and kidney disease, current cigarette smoking and low social support. Two other factors, self-reported thyroid disease and high hostility, were significant predictors in analyses adjusted for age, sex and race. In conclusion, we found striking differences in the rates and underlying cause of death across sex-race groups and several independent predictors of young adult mortality that have major implications for preventive medicine and social policies. © 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.