Life Expectancy Declines in Appalachia

On the heels of the health data we posted about last week comes a study showing life expectancy declining for much of Appalachia (among other rural areas). While the average life expectancy for America as a whole increased between 1987-2007 (from 73.7 to 75.6 years for men, and from 79.6 to 80.8 years for women), rural areas are not faring nearly as well. As this interactive map shows, nearly all of Appalachian Kentucky has seen a decline in life expectancy, along with southern West Virginia, far southwest Virginia and southeastern Ohio. Women in particular face the most decline: in Owsley County, KY, life expectancy for women dropped 1.1% (to 76.1 years, more than four years below the national average), while for men it stayed the same – though considering they die 7.4 years earlier than the average American man, that's still nothing to crow about.

The Rural Blog has an excellent summary of the report, which is posted below.


Life expectancy declining in some counties; trend seems common in Appalachia and the Black Belt


Life expectancy is declining in an increasing number of U.S. counties, and some rural areas stand out, according to a study covering the two decades from 1987 to 2007. In the first decade, life expectancy declined in 314 counties; in the most recent decade, it dropped in 860.

"The region where life expectancy is lowest, and in some places declining, begins in West Virginia, runs through the southern Appalachian Mountains and west through the Deep South into North Texas," writes David Brown of The Washington Post, who apparently doesn't reciognize the Black Belt when he sees it (see maps at bottom). "Places of high life expectancy are more scattered." (Click on map for interactive versions with county data)

Declines in life expectancy were more common among women. Counties that also had declining life expectancy for men included Pike in Kentucky, Grundy in Tennessee, Walker in Alabama, Baker in Florida and La Paz in Arizona. "There are several possible reasons for the slowing of longevity in parts of in the United States," Brown writes. "The rising rate of obesity and plateauing of the smoking cessation rate among women are two. Poorly controlled blood pressure and a shortage of primary-care physicians are two others." Here's another version of the interactive map, showing in yellow the counties where women's life expectancy declined from 1987 to 2007:

Brown explains, "Life expectancy is an abstract concept that summarizes the health and threats to longevity that exist at a particular moment in history. It is not an actual measure of how long people are living." For a further explanation of that, and the rest of the story, click here. For the press release about the study, go here; for the full study, which includes larger versions of the maps below, from Population Health Metricshere.

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