A new report shows just how far Appalachia has fallen behind the rest of the country on key health measures such as rates of cancer, heart disease and infant mortality. Researchers say the region’s health gap is growing and they hope the data they’ve compiled will spur new approaches to health care.
The 400-page report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, and the Appalachian Regional Commission used all publicly available data to show where people are sick and just how sick they are throughout the 13-state Appalachian region.
While the report found some regional improvement in the rates of cancer, heart disease and diabetes, people in Appalachia have higher rates compared to other regions. The gap between the health of Appalachians and the rest of the country continues to widen as health outcomes improve more rapidly elsewhere.
For example, Appalachia use to have an infant mortality rate 4 percent higher than the rest of the country. Now that rate is 16 percent higher, according to the research.
ARC Co-chair Earl Gohl said the region’s health data have never been examined in this way.
“What we’ve tried to do is to bring together in one place and to show how the region fits in with the rest of the country and look at how rural and urban communities differ,” he said.
Gohl said the ARC is focused on the connections between health and economic development.
“We look at these issues and these challenges as something that limits and holds us back in terms of the growth of the region,” he said.
Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said he was startled that the report showed that Kentuckians are even sicker than most of Appalachia.
“We really are the cancer capital of the country in Kentucky,” he said. Kentuckians also have the highest rates of diabetes among Appalachian states.
Chandler said the report clearly shows the deadly consequences that those high rates of disease can have. One measure the report highlights is years of potential life lost due to higher rates of mortality. According to the report Appalachians once had life span just 1 percent shorter than the rest of the country. Now the number has risen to 25 percent.
“As startling a number as any is the years of potential life lost,” Chandler said. “In other words, people are dying sooner than other people.”
The report is titled “Creating a Culture of Health in Appalachia,” and is the first of two reports intended to point toward possible remedies as well as pointing out problems. A second report to be released this fall, called “Brights Spots,” will showcase communities improving their health. The ReSource profiled the research underway for that report in Wirt County, West Virginia.
Chandler said the report should give policy makers across the region a sense of urgency on health matters.
“Not only do we have a serious problem we have to act on it immediately,” he said.
Correction: This story was modified on Thursday, Aug. 24, to correct Ben Chandler’s title. He is president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.