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Life expectancy in some rural Ky. counties nearly 10 years lower than U.S. average

Published: Mar. 10, 2021 at 4:50 PM EST
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - 78-years-old is the average age of death across the U.S. In four rural Kentucky counties, that number drops to 69. Public health experts said it’s an issue that can’t be overlooked.

“Some of our counties are the highest-ranked decreased life expectancies in the entire country,” Dean of UK College of Public Health Dr. Donna Arnett said.

Breathitt, Owsley, Perry and Powell counties are some of the worst.

“We know that zip code is a bigger determinant of life expectancy than your genetic code,” Dr. Arnett said.

Public health experts said it doesn’t boil down to just one factor.

“Job opportunities, income, if a person grew up with poverty...” said Dr. Jason Marion, EKU associate professor of environmental health science.

“We have very high rates of obesity and diabetes in this state, as well as high rates of suicide, alcohol abuse and substance use disorders,” Dr. Arnett said.

Dr. Marion said there are a lack of doctors available to treat a lot of disease.

“It’s important that doctors are able to speak the lingo and understand why people do what they do,” he said.

He said one solution is loan forgiveness programs that reward young people for returning home to work in the communities they grew up in.

“Many of the people who are able to get a great education leave these communities. I know many of them. They go on to be medical doctors and lawyers, they leave and then they leave those statistics as well,” Dr. Marion said.

Dr. Arnett is from eastern Kentucky. She said education, starting young, is key.

“To educate, we really need people to understand that their lifestyle factors when they’re young really predict what’s going to happen when they’re older,” Dr. Arnett said.

She explained once those people do get older, it’s harder to reach out for help.

“Obesity in particular is an area of intense stigma, as well as drug and alcohol abuse, even smoking, which is a major killer...we need to realize, in many cases, these are diseases, not necessarily the individual’s fault,” Dr. Arnett said.

Marion said it’s important for the rest of the state and the country to realize there are fellow Americans behind the numbers.

“When they’re addicted to something, they can’t just be [written] off, when they’re using needle drugs, we can’t just say ‘we’ve given up and we don’t care about you anymore,’” Dr. Marion said.

He said recent studies have shown that community programs are helping to bridge the healthcare gap. Dr. Marion said counties providing more transportation to medical appointments and healthy meals to school children have been proven to be successful.

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