Floyd County men are dying sooner.
Statistics compiled by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation released earlier this year show Floyd County males born today can expect to live to the age of 69 — more than seven years earlier than the national average.
They are dying sooner than their counterparts in some Third World countries. According to statistics from the United Nations, Floyd County men have a shorter life expectancy than men in Iran, Syria, Colombia and Nicaragua.
But even more troubling for local health officials is that the life expectancy for Floyd County men has been falling over the past decade. Men in Floyd County can now expect to live nearly 11 months shorter than they did 10 years ago, and nearly 16 months shorter than they did five years ago.
Floyd County women have seen a smaller decrease in their life expectancy. Figures show Floyd County females can expect live 76.4 years on average, a drop of 0.3 years over the past decade.
The findings are the most grim indicator of local health, following a tidal wave of reports in recent years that show that Floyd County has some of the worst rates for obesity, heart disease, diabetes, smoking and sedentary living.
The bad news is not limited to Floyd County. While life expectancy rose 2.1 years nationwide over the past decade, an analysis released last week by the Daily Yonder, a national rural news website operated by the Whitesburg-based Center for Rural Strategies, shows that 85 percent of rural and exurban counties across the country did not match that improvement. In 158 of those counties, life expectancy declined.
Floyd County had the 10th-sharpest decrease in life expectancy, and that trend played out around the region. The analysis by the Daily Yonder reveals a cluster of shrinking lifespans in the Big Sandy region. Perry County had the second-highest drop in the country, with 2.1 years, trailing only the 2.2 years posted by Grundy County, Tenn. Neighboring Pike County and McDowell County, W.Va., were in the top five, losing 1.1 years, while Johnson and Martin counties each lost a year.
Thursa Sloan, director of the Floyd County Health Department, said the findings are not surprising.
“I think it goes back to the environment we live in,” Sloan said. “It’s our lifestyle.”
Sloan said high rates of smoking, obesity and sedentary lifestyles are taking a toll on public health, resulting in a higher incidence of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
And high rates of poverty in the region do not help. Sloan said there is a direct correlation between poverty and health.
“A lot of it is economics,” Sloan said. “A lot of people can’t afford to eat healthy. They’ve got to make decisions. Do we buy medicine? Do we eat bologna?”
Sloan said she does not see things getting better. She expects to see continued declines in coming years.
“The answer for us is to have a better economy, and I don’t see that happening around here,” Sloan said.
Floyd County Coroner Greg Nelson agreed with Sloan’s assessment, but he also suspects another culprit in the trend: “I’m going to say a lot of that [decline in life expectancy] can be attributed to drug overdoses, if I had to guess.”
Nelson said his office sees an average of 50 overdose deaths each year, mostly striking people between the ages of 18 and 40. And he said that number is probably low.
“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s just Floyd County, and that’s just cases where they’ve called the coroner to the scene,” Nelson said.
William Heisel, a media relations staffer with IMHE, said his department evaluates death data all across the country in making its estimates. He said the usual reasons behind drops in life expectancy have one thing in common: They are all preventable.
Heisel cited tobacco use, high blood pressure and obesity as common factors behind a drop in longevity. He said he did not know whether 50 overdose deaths would make a significant difference in a county the size of Floyd, but he suspected not. However, he said widespread drug abuse would play a role in decreasing the community’s overall health.
“You’ll see a lot of the same factors all over the country, but you also have individual factors at play in different areas,” Heisel said.