Life expectancy, perhaps the most basic measure of a community’s overall health, is roughly equal to or better than the state average in most Central Kentucky counties, but in every county to the east, lives are shorter.
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 state life expectancy is 76 years. Several Central Kentucky counties share that figure: Boyle, Anderson, Clark, Bourbon. Many counties in the region exceed the state average. Life expectancy is 77 in Nelson, Washington, Spencer, Franklin, Woodford and Madison counties. A few counties have a life expectancy of 78: Shelby, Fayette, Jessamine, Scott and Garrard. Oldham County has the longest life expectancy in the state, 79.
Mercer and Harrison are the only Central Kentucky counties to fall short, with a life expectancy of 75.
Differences become greater moving east on the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway. In general, the starkest comparisons in the state exist between the Lexington metropolitan area and eastern counties. Only one eastern county, Morgan, has a life expectancy equal to the state’s. Others range from 70 (Perry, Breathitt and Wolfe counties) to 75, mainly in the state’s northeastern section.
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.
“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 Spencer County is ranked third out of 120 Kentucky counties in overall health outcomes and second in health behaviors, factors that influence those outcomes. It has figures that are significantly lower than state averages in rates of adult smoking, obesity, teen birth rates and new diagnoses of a certain sexually transmitted infection, all behaviors that influence a county’s overall health outcome.
In contrast, Harrison County ranks 81st in overall health outcomes and 35th in health behaviors. While smoking and obesity are slightly lower than statewide, teen birth rates are higher, and access to exercise opportunities is lower.
The disparity between Central and Eastern Kentucky is shown starkly by counties like Harlan, which has a life expectancy five years below the average, a ranking of 117th in overall health outcomes and 113th in health behaviors. The county has rates of smoking, obesity and teen births that are higher than statewide. Most Eastern Kentucky counties have similar statistics. The complete rankings are 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.”