Eight counties in Eastern Kentucky had the biggest decline in life expectancy in the country between 1980 and 2014, according to a study released Monday.
Owsley County had the biggest drop in the nation at 2.3 years, or 3 percent, the study said, followed by Lee, Leslie, Breathitt, Clay, Powell, Estill and Perry. The other two counties with the biggest declines were in Oklahoma and Alabama.
The study found that people born in those places today can expect to live shorter lives than their parents. It attributed the decline to a variety of factors: poverty; health risks, including obesity and smoking; inactivity; and lack of access to health care.
Owsley County Judge-Executive Cale Turner didn’t seem surprised by the findings.
He ticked off drags on life expectancy the county faces, including a debilitating drug abuse problem; one of the highest poverty rates in the nation; historic lack of access to health care; and high rates of diabetes.
Turner said many county residents received better access to health care in recent years with an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The law hadn’t been in effect long enough to be measured under the study.
Turner, a Democrat, said he thought improved access to health care would improve the county’s overall ranking over time. If people lose access, it will hurt, he said.
“It’s an alarming rate of people that have cancer and other health issues,” Turner said.
Researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle did the study of county-level life expectancy, which was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
It found that life expectancy increased nationally for both men and women between 1980 and 2014. For men, life expectancy went up from 70 years to 76.7, while for women it climbed from 77.5 years to 81.5.
However, the researchers said there were large – and increasing – disparities in life expectation among counties.
The study also showed that the gap was larger in 2014 than in 1980 between counties with the highest and lowest life expectancy. The difference of 20.1 years in 2014 highlighted a “massive and growing inequality in the health of Americans,” the institute said in a news release.
A group of counties in Colorado topped the estimate of life expectancy, with Summit County the highest at 86.8 years.
Even though eight Kentucky counties had the biggest declines in life expectancy from 1980 through 2014, there were others around the nation where people born in 2014 could expect to die sooner, the study estimated.
Many of those were on Native American reservations.
The study said Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota, which includes the Pine Ridge reservation, had the lowest life life expectancy in the U.S. in 2014, at 66.8 years.
In Owsley County, the figure was 70.2 years, down from 72.4 in 1980. The county’s 2014 calculation was the lowest in Kentucky and sixth-lowest in the nation, the study said.
The study said babies born in 13 U.S. counties have shorter expected lifespans than people born in 1980.
In addition to the eight in Eastern Kentucky, there were two in Alabama and one each in Tennessee, Mississippi and Oklahoma, the study said.
Wolfe and Nicholas counties in Kentucky barely averted a decline, showing an improvement in life expectancy of one-tenth of a year, the study said.
The study said that a combination of factors in three areas — health risks, socioeconomic status and health care availability — explained 74 percent of the variation in life expectancy among counties.
“The inequality in health in the United States — a country that spends more on health care than any other — is unacceptable,” Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said in a statement. “Every American, regardless of where they live or their background, deserves to live a long and healthy life.
“If we allow trends to continue as they are, the gap will only widen between counties.”