CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Women in southern West Virginia are living shorter lives than women in much of the nation, according to a report released today.
McDowell County women have the 10th shortest life spans among women in 3,100 counties in the United States. Mingo County women don't fare much better, ranking 15th lowest. And Logan County women had the 16th shortest life expectancy in the nation.
Even more alarming: Those life spans are getting shorter. Southern West Virginia women lived longer in the late 1980s than they did a decade later, according to the report.
"The dream that we will live longer than our parents, and that our children will live longer, more productive lives than our own is being threatened," said Perry Bryant, director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, the group that published the report. "Unless we take immediate action, it is a real possibility that our children will have shorter lives than our own."
Bryant's organization used data from an April 2008 report by Harvard University researchers that examined life expectancy across the U.S.
Health advocates believe the short life spans are linked to poor health among southern West Virginia women. The region typically has some of the nation's highest rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and smoking.
Not a single West Virginia county had a life expectancy for women at or above the national average in 1999, the last year data was available. Tucker County women live the longest, 79.5 years on average, just shy of the national rate of 79.6 years.
By contrast, McDowell County women live only 73.5 years on average 11 years less than women in the county (Stearns County, Minn.) with the nation's highest life expectancy, and six years less than the national average.
In 10 West Virginia counties, women's life spans dropped by at least a year between 1989 and 1999. In McDowell, Lincoln, Wyoming, Boone and Logan counties, life expectancy declined by two years or more.
The data shows that southern West Virginia men also have shorter life spans, but the life expectancy gap between southern West Virginia women and the rest of the nation's women is much wider.
"The short life expectancy of West Virginians, particularly women in southern West Virginia, is a moral stain on our state and demands action," said the Rev. Dennis Sparks, director of the state Council of Churches. "The issue will not be solved overnight."
In the report, West Virginians for Affordable Health Care recommends the state establish a regional health department in southern West Virginia. The department would determine the causes of the short life spans and develop programs to address the problem, Bryant said.
Bryant's group also suggested that the Bureau for Public Health develop aggressive smoking cessation programs in the area. The southern counties also should consider adopting comprehensive smoking bans, the organization said.
What's more, the group recommended that soft drinks not be sold in schools, and local school boards take steps to ensure students are getting sufficient exercise by bolstering physical education classes.
"It will take a significant investment of resources," Bryant said. "However, we owe the citizens of West Virginia a concentrated effort to improve their health status and ensure they have a life expectancy equal to the rest of the U.S."
The top six counties with the lowest life expectancy among women all were in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations.