Dear Appalachia: We’re Dying Way Too Young

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Photo courtesy of Albert Herring
Photo courtesy of Albert Herring

I was born in a hospital room that was literally hanging over the Guyandotte River in Logan County, West Virginia.  A handful of years later, when I was still a child, my family moved from the coalfields of Southern West Virginia into the hayfields of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.  Though both places are distinct from each other, the one thing they have in common is that they are both part of the Appalachian Nation.  To put it simply, I was Appalachian-born, I was Appalachian-raised and I plan to remain Appalachian until I am Appalachian-dead.

I love the place and people of this region and it is here in these mountains that I will forever feel at home; so please do not mistake this article as just another brow-beating piece by some stuck-up city writer who doesn’t even know how to pronounce our mountains correctly!  This is the farthest thing from what this article is intended to be, this article is one that is being written out of a heart-filled with love for my friends, family and community.

From the earliest days of my memory, every meal we had as a family featured only one beverage, “pop”.  We didn’t drink much milk or juice and certainly never any water growing up — years of pollution have left many wells and springs throughout Appalachia unsuitable for drinking and bottled water was something most of my people didn’t even know existed.  For us, a two-liter Pepsi-Cola in the fridge was the champagne of choice.

Though this type of upbringing may sound foreign to some, it was the norm for our community, my classmates and even my teachers at school.  No one really thought much about sugars and carbs — as long as you weren’t rolling marijuana or snorting lines, you were considered to be living healthy!

My entire life, I watched as a man I affectionately knew as “Granddad” would prick his finger multiple times each day just to check his sugar and then prior to any meal, he’d pull out his pudgy belly and insert a needle laced with insulin simply to remain alive.  He was the kindest man I’ve ever known, yet sugar diabetes left him debilitated and a shell of the man he once was.  Sadly, he never made it out of his fifties and his flag-covered coffin contained a man who should have lived to see at least two more decades.

This past year, I too, found the affects of four decades of consuming gallons of Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew and Pepsi each week and countless tons of processed food over my lifetime had begun taking a deadly toll on my body.  No longer was I strong, energetic, or even clear in thought — what I had been consuming for body fuel was actually making me sluggish.  We are what we eat and I was nothing more than greasy, factory-made, sugar-laced garbage and my body was wearing down because of it.

Seeing those closest to me suffering immensely and not desiring to follow in their path, I made a bold and difficult decision — I would eliminate all “pops” (soda for those of you who weren’t raised in the mountains!) from my diet as well as all processed food.  The decision would not be easy or cheap; however, I had to decide what was most important to me — satellite television or living to see my daughters walk down the aisle.

I have no idea what it is like to be addicted to heroine or alcohol and though I do not pretend for a moment that my plight is equal, I can truly say that like an addict suffering from withdrawals, I have found myself and body desiring to “go back” for just one quick hit.  Knowing myself too well, I have refused to allow myself to take just a single sip for fear that I will fall right back into the old trap.

But here I am, three months later, ten pounds lighter and feeling healthier than I have in over a decade.  Why?  It has nothing to do with a diet supplement, or some expensive weight loss plan aimed at making me look good.  I haven’t spent a single penny on all of that non-sense; I’ve simply cut sodas and processed food from my diet and began becoming more conscious of what I’m consuming.

I love Appalachia, our heritage, cooking granny’s and next door neighbors, but the truth is that while the health departments and state governments are all focused on curbing our opioid pandemic, many of us are slowly being killed by our own unhealthy lifestyles and the problem is actually getting worse, not better.

In the early 1990s, an ARC study found that the region’s infant mortality rate was about identical to that of the rest of the country, but between 2009 and 2013, it was 16 percent higher.

“Similarly, in 1992, the average Appalachian had a life expectancy of about 75.2 years, just half a year shorter than the average American. By the 2009 to 2013 study period, the disparity had grown to 2.4 years. In the intervening time—nearly two decades that saw the advent of DNA sequencing and other medical advancements—life expectancy increased by 2.4 years for women outside of Appalachia, but by just a fraction of a year for Appalachian women,” says an Atlantic article.

I’m sure there are numerous studies that could postulate why this is, but speaking for myself, I can say this — it is a cultural thing.  I was never really seriously taught to take great interest in my health and as I got older, making a living and providing for my family took precedence and now I’m suffering the consequences.

Unlike the healthy people who live in urban areas, most of us don’t have the luxury to walk downtown to the local organic food store and purchase spinach for the coming morning’s breakfast quiche.  This is absolutely true.

With this being said, as a fellow child of Appalachia, I would implore my friends and neighbors to begin focusing on their bodies for a change — not so you “won’t be fat” but so that you can feel better and actually be healthy.  Food is fuel and most of us here in the mountains give more thought to the fuel we place into our cars than we do into our children and selves.

It’s time we end a trend that is killing the greatest people on the planet.  Let’s get healthy, Appalachia.

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