BACKGROUND: Few studies have been published on the overall survival of adult patients with asthma. A cohort study was performed to assess the mortality from all causes, from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and from lung cancer among adult asthmatic subjects. METHODS: A population of 31,110 Finnish adult women and men, mostly twins, was studied to compare the 16 year mortality rates among asthmatic (n = 471) and non-asthmatic persons. A further 293 twin pairs, discordant for asthma, were also studied to determine whether the mortality of patients with asthma differs from that of their age matched siblings. RESULTS: Mortality from all causes was increased among asthmatic adults (age adjusted hazard ratios 1.49, 95% CI 1.09 to 2.05 for men and 1.53, 95% CI 1.10 to 2.13 for women), and mortality due to chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases was also significantly increased in asthmatic subjects. The risk of death due to lung cancer was increased in men with asthma (hazard ratio adjusted for smoking 3.19, 95% CI 1.39 to 7.31). The risk ratios found among twins discordant for asthma corresponded to those found in the whole cohort. CONCLUSIONS: Survival in adults with asthma is worse than in those without asthma. The excess deaths due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may explain some part of the increased mortality rates, but not all of it.