Living in the Southeast is bad for your health.
There is a huge range in the death rates across American states, driven by public policy, regional habits and socioeconomics, Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday.
"Your longevity and health are more determined by your ZIP code than they are by your genetic code," he said.
The death rate from the five major causes varies at least twofold between the healthiest states – such as Colorado, Utah and Vermont – and the least healthy, most of which are found in the Southeast, Frieden said, citing a new CDC study.
"These deaths are not random. They are clustered by geography," he said. "That's a reflection of the huge impact that healthier policies can have."
Most of the gap can be explained by differences in smoking habits, obesity, lack of exercise, poor diet, drug and alcohol abuse and access to medications – all of which can be modified with better habits and policies, Frieden said.
Every year, nearly 900,000 Americans die sooner than they should from these five leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, stroke, lung disease and accidents, according to the study, published in this week's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The study concluded that 20%-40% of these premature deaths could be prevented.
"Even if each community identifies just one issue, we can make a big difference in preventable deaths," Frieden said.
There are programs in place that can help improve these statistics, he said, citing the CDC's Million Hearts Initiative, which aims to reduce stroke risk, as well as efforts nationwide to start farmer's markets, expand smoke-free environments, open schoolyards for recreation and initiate walking clubs.
"We have the biggest impact when we make the default choice the healthy choice," he said, adding that collaborations between government and the private sector are often the most effective.
Disparities have long been a part of America's health story, said Sandro Galea, head of the Department of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York City.
In a study a few years ago, Galea and his colleagues showed that poverty, racial segregation, lack of education and income inequality account for hundreds of thousands of extra deaths per year in the USA.
"We have been far too tolerant of some of the health gaps that have characterized the U.S. health landscape for many decades," Galea said, adding that improving health at the bottom of the economic ladder will help everyone on the higher rungs.
"It's a classic case of 'A rising tide will lift all boats,' including those at the very top," he said.
If all states had the lowest death rate observed for each cause, it would be possible to prevent:
- 34% of premature deaths from heart diseases, prolonging about 92,000 lives.
- 21% of premature cancer deaths, prolonging about 84,500 lives.
- 39% of premature deaths from chronic lower respiratory diseases, prolonging about 29,000 lives.
- 33% of premature stroke deaths, prolonging about 17,000 lives.
- 39% of premature deaths from unintentional injuries, prolonging about 37,000 lives.