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Connection to people, purpose important to health, official says

By LORI KERSEY

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Connecting people to each other is the most important thing West Virginia can do to improve its health, one of the state’s top health officials said Wednesday.

“We know that people that feel isolated or feel abandoned have worse health care problems,” said Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president and executive dean for health sciences at West Virginia University.

Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president and executive dean for health sciences at West Virginia University, speaks Wednesday during a health conference in Charleston. (Courtesy photo)
Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president and executive dean for health sciences at West Virginia University, speaks Wednesday during a health conference in Charleston.
(Courtesy photo)
Historically, isolation has been a problem for the elderly, but the region’s drug epidemic is changing that, he said. With parents incarcerated or absent, more children are “fighting for themselves,” Marsh said.

Having resources available for after-school programs for children and for home-visiting programs for seniors is important for their health, he said.

“I think we want to help our elderly population that’s getting larger and larger feel more connected and not feel isolated,” Marsh said. “We really want to focus on our kids so that we can make sure that we try to intervene before they develop the type of lifelong problems that don’t only increase health care costs but really reduce the quality and the lengths of their lives.”

Besides connecting people to one other, Marsh said finding people work and education are the three most important factors to the state’s health.

Marsh was the keynote speaker Wednesday at a meeting of community leaders and health experts and activists from across the state. More than 160 people attended the day-long West Virginia at the Intersection of Health and Community Conference at the Columbia Gas building, in Charleston.

Marsh said grass-roots community efforts like Try This West Virginia, Sustainable Williamson, the Coalfield Development Corporation and others are the answer to the state’s poor health outcomes.

“Community-based efforts that can be supported with a relatively small amount of money, really to me are the answer,” Marsh said after his talk. “So the communities are teaching themselves to fish versus waiting for someone to come teach them how to fish, versus somebody fishing for them.”

Marsh said the states that spend the most on health care typically have the worst health outcomes. West Virginia spends between 24 and 26 percent of its gross domestic product on health care, Marsh said. Despite that, the state often finds itself on the worst-of lists for health problems.

“It says to me that spending more money probably is not the answer,” he said.

Marsh defined health as youth.

“I think health is where your biological age is less than your chronological age,” Marsh said.

Relationships play an big role in our health, Marsh said. People who have an obese best friend are more likely to be obese than those with an obese first-degree family member, he said. There’s a 60 percent chance you’re obese if your best friend is, he said. Those with a close family member who is obese have only a 40 percent chance of being obese, he said.

Eating habits, too, play a big part in health. Eating fewer calories is the one thing that all species can do to live longer lives, he said.

The average American eats up to 150 pounds of sugar in a year, he said.

“It’s in everything,” Marsh said. “Look at your [nutrition] labels.”

The conference was sponsored by the Federal Reserve Banks in Richmond, Virginia and Cleveland, West Virginia University, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the Kanawha Valley Foundation and the West Virginia Primary Care Association.

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