Thousands of Americans who live in the nation’s unhealthiest states could prevent their early deaths if they adopted the habits of the residents who live in healthy states like Utah and Minnesota, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released on Thursday. The CDC’s new data adds to the growing body of research that Americans’ mortality rates closely track with which area of the country they live in.
According to the CDC, these preventable deaths are caused by five things: heart disease, cancer, lung disease, stroke, and unintentional injuries like car accidents or drug overdoses. But those issues aren’t evenly dispersed throughout the nation. Southeastern states like Mississippi have significantly higher numbers of people suffering from the health issues that lead to non-injury deaths.
“The Southeast has sometimes been referred to as the ‘stroke belt’ and this data confirms that,” the CD’s director, Dr. Thomas Friedan, explained on a conference call with reporters. “It’s a confluence of more smoking, more obesity, less physical activity, and less access to primary health care resulting in challenges with treatment of high blood pressure and cancer screening and follow-up.”
The healthiest states are better at preventing unnecessarily early deaths largely because they’ve implemented small policy changes to encourage people to get more exercise, eat more healthy food, and get screened more regularly for potential health issues. Some have worked on creating financial incentives for food stamp beneficiaries to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Many have limited smoking in public places, or even tried to raise the smoking age. In an op-ed published on CNN, Friedan points out that it wouldn’t be that difficult for other states to follow suit.
“We can make it easier for people to be physically active, avoid tobacco and have access to affordable, healthy food. We can make it easier for people to get recommended clinical preventive services such as blood pressure management and cancer screening, and to have access to good quality health care when it’s needed,” the CDC director writes. “Change is never easy. But each year we don’t act adds tens of thousands of preventable deaths to the toll. We owe it to the American people to do better.”
Over the past several years, the health disparities between rich and poor areas of the United States have actually been widening, and poor people’s lives are getting shorter. The Affordable Care Act will help take some steps forward in this area by helping more people gain access to preventative care — but there’s significant geographical variation in health reform’s policy impact. As GOP-led states continue to resist implementing Obamacare’s optional Medicaid expansion, which seeks to extend basic health coverage to the poorest Americans, disparities between regions threaten to get even bigger.