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June 24, 2024

America’s Health Crisis: High Rates of Chronic Disease Across Southern States

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Jan 16, 2024

A new study by Forbes Advisor reveals alarming statistics about health across America, with a particular crisis in Southern states like West Virginia, Arkansas, and Kentucky. These states rank among the least healthy in the country on metrics like rates of chronic disease, mental distress, food insecurity, drug deaths and more.

Southern States Face Uphold Health Challenges

According to the study, West Virginia ranks last in health out of all 50 states for the fourth year in a row. The Mountain State struggles with high rates of chronic conditions like diabetes and COPD, low availability of mental health providers, food insecurity, premature death, and the highest drug overdose mortality rate in the country.

Neighboring states in the South face similar health hurdles. Arkansas comes in 46th, with high rates of regular smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. Kentucky ranks 45th, struggling with a large mentally distressed population and low access to mental health care. Other Southern states rounding out the bottom 10 in health include Alabama (48th), Louisiana (47th), Mississippi (49th) and Tennessee (44th).

State Health Ranking Key Health Challenges
West Virginia 50th High chronic disease, low mental health access, food insecurity
Arkansas 46th Smoking, obesity, physical inactivity
Kentucky 45th Mental distress, poor access to care

Meanwhile, states on the East and West Coasts tend to have healthier populations overall. The top five healthiest states span from Hawaii (1st) to Connecticut (5th), highlighting this health divide between the Southern interior and coastal parts of the country.

Driving Factors Behind the Southern Health Crisis

Several interlinked factors help explain the uphill health battles faced by West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky and other Southern states.

High Poverty

Many Southern states have substantial rates of poverty which directly impact public health outcomes. In West Virginia specifically, 16.7% of residents live below the poverty line, well above the national average. Struggling to make ends meet, many cannot easily access or afford health care, nutritious foods and other foundations of good health.

Poverty also often means fewer individual and government resources to invest in public health efforts around chronic disease prevention, mental health, and creating healthy built environments. “There are just fewer local health dollars because there’s less local tax money…there’s more pressing issues,” notes Sharecare’s senior medical director Dr. Gary LeRoy.

Culture and Lifestyle Factors

Unhealthy behaviors and attitudes passed down through generations also negatively impact health in many Southern states. For example, higher rates of risky health behaviors like smoking and drinking are the norm in states like West Virginia and Kentucky. Making progress on issues like the obesity epidemic can be harder when less nutritious diets and lower activity levels are culturally embedded.

Building public awareness and education around chronic disease prevention presents difficulties as well. States like Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama have among the lowest rates of high school completion in the country, contributing to lower health literacy. Successfully changing such ingrained cultural patterns requires substantial, sustained effort.

Limited Health Care Access

Access barriers when it comes to both health insurance coverage and availability of providers compound the health struggles across Southern states. States like Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida declined to expand Medicaid after the passage of the Affordable Care Act. This decision left many low-income residents without an affordable insurance option.

Rural areas of the South also suffer from shortages of primary care doctors, dentists, mental health professionals and specialty providers. West Virginia, for example, has fewer than 85 mental health providers per 100,000 people. Transport barriers and long travel times frequently prevent rural Southern residents from accessing the limited care available in cities and towns. Vulnerable populations like the elderly and chronically ill face even greater hurdles connecting to appropriate health services.

What Comes Next?

With Southern states facing clearly higher rates of obesity, substance abuse, chronic disease and mental health issues, public officials face pressure to take action. However, meaningful progress remains a monumental task given the complex mix of poverty, cultural factors and access barriers impacting health.

Potential steps like Medicaid expansion, boosting funding for rural clinics and programs to build community awareness can help move the needle. But relatively poor and cash-strapped Southern state governments realistically have limited budgets to address giant systemic problems.

Tragically the result seems to be Southern populations continuing to get left behind healthier parts of America, absent major new federal aid or coordinated efforts between state leaders, health organizations and communities themselves. Until largescale change comes, chronic disease, mental distress and substance abuse will likely continue taking their toll on Southerners.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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