Many Factors Contribute to Lower Life Expectancy in W.Va.

By LINDA COMINS

The Intelligencer

WHEELING, W.Va.  — A local health official believes many factors contribute to southwestern West Virginia’s “very low” life expectancy.

Dire results for that region of the Mountain State are cited in a new report issued in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The report is based on findings from an internal medicine investigation of inequalities in life expectancy among U.S. counties from 1980 to 2014.

The May 8 report stated: “Several counties in South and North Dakota (typically those with Native American reservations) had the lowest life expectancy, and counties along the lower half of the Mississippi and in eastern Kentucky and southwestern West Virginia also had very low life expectancy compared with the rest of the country. In contrast, counties in central Colorado had the highest life expectancies.”

According to the AMA, life expectancy at birth for both sexes combined in the United States increased from 73.8 years to 79.1 years between 1980 and 2014.

However, the AMA journal said “some southern counties in states stretching from Oklahoma to West Virginia saw little, if any, improvements over this same period.”

By comparison, life expectancies in northern West Virginia and eastern Ohio are at or near the national average, according to a map based on the study.

Dr. William Mercer, Ohio County health director, said the results show environmental and behavioral factors, chronic diseases and access to health care make a big difference in life expectancy.

He said, “This kind of study tries to help you decide where do we put more money in to make a difference.”

Drawing a sobering conclusion, Mercer said life expectancy in southwestern West Virginia is comparable to longevity in developing nations. “There is a 20-year difference from southern West Virginia to Colorado,” he said.

On a more positive note, Mercer said, “It also shows where we can make the difference. The big word is prevention.”

Diabetes, hypertension, smoking, obesity and lack of exercise contribute to lower life expectancy. If those factors can be prevented, controlled or alleviated, it might make a difference to longevity.

“Our rates in Wheeling are not like southern West Virginia. Our city government is looking at how can we make Wheeling better — more walkable, with community gardens and improving the park system,” Mercer said, adding, “We have a good public health infrastructure. In Ohio County, we have a good health department.”

Socioeconomic issues such as poverty, lack of education and access to health care also contribute to poor health and lead to lower life expectancy.

He said it takes funding to address those issues.

Mercer said state-funded tobacco prevention has had great success, while Ohio County’s clean indoor air regulation is educating the public about the dangers of secondhand smoke and risks of electronic cigarettes.

“It comes back to prevention and working on some of those chronic diseases,” the physician said.

In its findings, the AMA journal stated, “In this population-based analysis, inequalities in life expectancy among counties are large and growing, and much of the variation in life expectancy can be explained by differences in socioeconomic and race/ethnicity factors, behavioral and metabolic risk factors, and health care factors.”

AMA officials concluded, “Policy action targeting socioeconomic factors and behavioral and metabolic risk factors may help reverse the trend of increasing disparities in life expectancy in the United States.”

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