Life expectancy, perhaps the most basic measure of a community’s overall health, is among the lowest in the state in Letcher County, and that’s in line with the rest of southeastern Kentucky.
Health researchers say life expectancy is driven by a complex web of factors that influence health — opportunities for education and jobs, safe and affordable housing, availability of nutritious food and places for physical activity, and access to health care, child care and social services.
Letcher County’s life expectancy is 72 years, four years less than the state average. Figures are similar in surrounding Kentucky counties: 73 in Knott, 72 in Pike, 71 in Floyd and Harlan, and 70 in Leslie. Oldham County, northeast of Louisville, is highest at 79. Only one eastern Kentucky county, Morgan, has a life expectancy equal to the state’s.
The numbers are on a Kentucky life expectancy map released this week by researchers at the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It shows that chances to lead a long and healthy life can vary dramatically by county.
“Health differences between communities are rarely due to a single cause,” the researchers said in a press release. “The health differences shown in these maps aren’t unique to one area. We see them in big cities, small towns, and rural areas across America,” said Derek Chapman, the VCU center’s associate director for research.
The map is the latest effort by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to raise public awareness of the many factors that shape health, particularly social and economic factors.
Another is the County Health Rankings, done annually by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The rankings don’t provide a comprehensive explanation for life expectancy, but they provide helpful correlations.
For example, the statistics show that Letcher County is ranked 105th out of 120 Kentucky counties in overall health outcomes. It has significantly higher rates of obesity, physical inactivity and teen births—all behaviors that influence a county’s overall health— than the state as a whole.
Across the state line, Wise County, Virginia, has similar problems. It ranks 124th out of 134 Virginia counties and independent cities in health outcomes and 123rd in health factors. It has high rates of obesity, inactivity and teen births.
The complete rankings for Letcher County are available at www.countyhealthrankings.org/app/ kentucky/2016/rankings/ letcher/county/outcomes/ overall/snapshot.
The Kentucky Department for Public Health says it and partners have several efforts underway to tackle the many factors that shape health:
• Promotion of farmers’ markets, such as the one in Whitesburg, and their acceptance of federal food assistance benefits such as SNAP, WIC and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program Vouchers, incentive programs to help with affordability and community outreach.
• Promotion of walking and walkability by providing communities with targeted training and technical assistance to develop pedestrian plans.
• Protecting youth from tobacco exposure through the “100 percent Tobacco Free Schools” program, which guides districts that want to reduce tobacco use by students and staff.
Experts say local efforts are needed, too. “We must build a society where everyone, no matter where they live, the color of their skin, their financial or family situation, has the opportunity to lead a productive, healthy life,” said RWJF President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Each community must chart its own course, and every person has a role to play in achieving better health in their homes, their communities, their schools and their workplaces.”
Danielle Ray writes for Kentucky Health News, an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.