Study finds only counties in Appalachia, mostly in Kentucky, had increasing rates of death among both sexes as century turned

By Molly Burchett
Kentucky Health News

More than 40 percent of counties saw increases in female death rates as the 21st Century began, while the death rate for men rose in just 3 percent of counties, a study shows. Only Appalachian counties, mostly in Kentucky, had worsening rates for both sexes. (Click on a map for a larger version.)

Change In Male Mortality Rates From 1992–96 To 2002–06

Change In Female Mortality Rates From 1992–96 To 2002–06

On the Health Affairs maps above, blue counties showed substantial improvement, while those in aqua showed minimal improvement and worsening counties are in red.

The study identifies some shared characteristics among the 1,334 counties where more women are dying prematurely, but the main factors weren’t medical or behavioral, according to David Kindig and Erika Cheng, authors of the study report.

Although counties with high rates of smoking and obesity had increased mortality rates, the report found socioeconomic factors in the Appalachian states of Kentucky and West Virginia, such as the percentage of a county’s population with a college education and the rate of children living in poverty, had more to do with increased mortality rates.

In Kentucky, Owsley County has been ranked last on health-related measures by the Population Health Institute. Areas like this in Appalachia suffered rising death rates in both sexes because college education is a rarity, child poverty is normal, recreational facilities are scarce, restaurants are mostly fast-food outlets, and adults lack social support, reports Geoffrey Cowley of msnbc.

The chart below shows how Kentucky compares to the national average in premature death and that Owsley County suffers from tremendously high rates.

County Health Rankings by University of Wisconsin‘s Population Health
Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (
These findings provide supporting evidence for the ever-increasing need for significant health improvement efforts in Appalachia. According to the report, efforts must extend beyond a focus on health care delivery and include stronger policies affecting health behaviors and the social and environmental determinants of health,with corresponding investments in those areas. (Read more)
Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.
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