Life Expectancy in Appalachia is Actually Dropping

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PHOTO: Abandoned school in McDowell County, West Virginia. McDowell County's population has dropped from 98,000 in 1950 to 20,876. Magnolia677
PHOTO: Abandoned school in McDowell County, West Virginia. McDowell County’s population has dropped from 98,000 in 1950 to 20,876.
Photo courtesy: Magnolia677

This morning, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published research stating that as a whole, Americans are living longer than ever before; sadly, this fountain of youth is not available to everyone, in fact, it has bypassed the millions of Americans who call the mountains of Appalachia home.

We knew things were getting bad for the residents of abandoned ghost towns in forgotten coalfield counties, but today’s data paints a picture of just how bad: Life expectancies in many parts is actually dropping.

“Depending on where you live in this great country, life expectancy can vary more than 20 years—a surprisingly wide gap that has widened significantly in recent decades,” stated Dr. Francis Collins of the NIH.

According to Collins, researchers attribute this disturbing gap to a variety of social and economic influences, as well as differences in modifiable behavioral and lifestyle factors, such as obesity, inactivity, and tobacco use.

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that the average American baby born in 2014 can expect to live to about age 79. That’s up from a national average of about 73 in 1980 and around 68 in 1950. However, babies born in many parts of Eastern Kentucky can expect to live only about 70 years. That’s in stark contrast to a child born about 300 miles away in Fairfax County, Virginia, where life expectancy at birth now exceeds age 83.

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Counties with lower life expectancies in 2007 than in 1987

Dozens of Appalachian counties saw their life expectancies remain unchanged or even drop between 1987 and 2007 and thirteen counties across the United States actually have lower life expectancies today than they did in 1980. Life expectancy in Owsley County, Kentucky, for example, dropped from age 72 to age 70.

A lot of these troubling statistics can be attributed to what seems to be a rise in deaths among adults aged 25 to 45 — more than 1 in 10 U.S. counties saw an increased risk of death for adults in this age group.

The differences in life span across the country can be explained in part by socioeconomic factors, including race, education, and income, and access to health care. But nearly three-fourths of the variation in longevity is accountable to behavioral and metabolic risk factors, including obesity, exercise, smoking, alcohol and drug addiction, blood pressure, and diabetes.

To put it simply, residents of Appalachia are dying off and we’re doing it quicker than ever before. And if we’re going to be honest, a lot of the blame is our own fault.

Sure, not everyone has the money to purchase organic greens from their local farmers market (and yes, this capability certainly helps a lot in living long and healthy lives), but in the same token, no one is forcing the people of our communities to dump energy drinks into alcohol or mix bath chemicals together.  This may not be popular preaching, but it’s the truth and with statistics like these, this isn’t the time to mince words.

A lot of talk has been placed on what we need to do in order to turn the communities of Appalachia around, but the reality is we may need to back up from this approach and begin working on ourselves first. Before we can begin making major changes to entire towns, we may need to begin making even more major changes in our personal lives.  Failure for us to begin doing so may end in us simply not being around much longer.

I love the people of my home and pray for the situations of so many to improve on a daily basis, but if lasting changes are to be made, it’s going to begin with each person deciding they’re tired of business as usual and being willing to begin major changes in their own personal lives.

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