Life expectancy, perhaps the most basic measure of a community’s overall health, is roughly equal to the state average in most Western Kentucky counties. But a closer look at each county shows deeper differences in health outcomes and the factors that drive them.
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.
The statewide life expectancy is 76 years. Several Western Kentucky counties share that figure: Logan, Ohio, Henderson, Trigg, Lyon, Marshall, McCracken, Graves, Carlisle and Hickman.
A few counties are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Calloway County leads Western Kentucky with a life expectancy of 78 years, second highest in the state, followed by 77 in Daviess and Hancock counties. Life expectancy is 75 in Butler, McLean, Todd, Hopkins, Christian, Crittenden, Caldwell, Livingston and Ballard counties. Muhlenberg and Webster come in at 74, and Fulton County has the lowest in the west, 73.
Oldham County, northeast of Louisville, has the highest life expectancy in Kentucky, 79.
The numbers are on a Kentucky life expectancy map released Monday 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, and that the lowest life expectancies are in Eastern Kentucky.
“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, Christian County ranks 69th out of 120 Kentucky counties in overall health outcomes and 85th in the factors that influence those outcomes. Christian has an adult obesity rate 5 percentage points higher than the state average, and rates of newly diagnosed sexually transmitted infections and teen birth rates are also significantly higher in the county than statewide.
McCracken County ranks 42nd in overall health outcomes and 24th in health factors. Its adult smoking rate is 6 percentage points lower than statewide, and its access to exercise opportunities is 3 percentage points higher.
Hopkins County ranks just behind McCracken in overall health outcomes, 43rd, but ranks 30th in health behaviors, with adult smoking and obesity rates that are higher than statewide.
Marshall County is one of the highest ranking counties in the state, placing 10th in both health outcomes and factors. For example, the county has an adult smoking rate that is significantly lower than the state average.
The complete rankings are available at http://www.countyhealthrankings.org/app/kentucky/2016/overview.
The state Department for Public Health says it and partners have several efforts underway to tackle the many factors that shape health:
• Promotion of farmers’ markets 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 provides guidance to districts that wish 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.”