The study objective was to examine differentials in time trends and predictors of deaths assigned to symptoms, signs and ill-defined conditions in comparison with other ill-defined conditions (ill-defined cardiovascular diseases, cancer and injury) in a population-based cohort study. Of 1,606 baseline participants aged 60 years and over, 524 died during 9-year follow-up and were included in this study. Deaths coded to "symptoms" declined by 77% in the period from 1997-1999 to 2003-2005. Deaths coded to other ill-defined conditions remained unchanged. The calendar period 2003-2005 (RR = 0.25; 95%CI: 0.09-0.70) and in-hospital deaths (RR = 0.16; 95%CI: 0.08-0.34) were independently associated with "symptoms", but not with other ill-defined conditions. Baseline socio-demographic characteristics and chronic diseases were not predictors of these outcomes. International and national agencies have focused on the reduction of deaths assigned to "symptoms" to improve the registration of vital statistics, while other ill-defined conditions have received little attention. Our data provide evidence supporting the need to redress this situation.