A new study by the Centers for Disease Control ranking potentially preventable deaths (from the five leading causes of death) across all 50 states reveals a gaping hole in America’s strive to be healthy—particularly in the Southeast.
Using National Vital Statistics System mortality data from 2008–2010, the CDC looked at the number of observed deaths from heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, and unintentional injuries. Using the three states with the lowest mortality rate as the benchmark, they determined where the system breakdown begins.
The number of lives that could have been saved is staggering: an estimated 91,757 deaths from heart disease, 84,443 from cancer, 28,831 from chronic lower respiratory diseases, 16,973 from stroke, and 36,836 from unintentional injuries—and that’s just in one year. Mississippi led the pack for preventable deaths from heart disease at 48 percent; Kentucky topped the list for cancer at 38 percent, Oklahoma for lung disease at 67 percent, Mississippi for stroke at 58 percent, and Oklahoma for injury at a whopping 67 percent.
But overall, the region with the worst numbers was the Southeast. So what is Mississippi and its sister states doing wrong?
“This is a pattern that we see over and over again in the Southeast, whether look at life expectancy or disease rates,” Dr. Paula Yoon, director of the CDC’s Division of Health Informatics and Surveillance, tells The Daily Beast. “I think it gets to the risk factors: higher levels of smoking, obesity, inactivity, stroke, diabetes. If you look at the five main conditions we’re focusing on, many are influenced directly by these factors.”
Reducing smoking rates, increasing physical activity, and promoting a healthy diet isn’t enough, says Dr. Yoon. “In order for these states to make it work, they need to find a way to make healthy choices the default choice,” she says. “If you’re living in the inner city and there is nowhere that sells fresh fruit and vegetables, you don’t have options for what you’re buying. That’s what we mean when we say making it the default choice. Make it easier than the unhealthy choice.”
While Dr. Yoon hopes the study will inspire state health officials in the Southeast to establish disease prevention goals, priorities, and strategies, no state should consider itself healthy enough.
“All of the states, even the ones with low rates, could do more,” she says.