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Is your health getting worse?

Brandon Paykamian • Dec 12, 2017 at 11:49 PM

Whether it’s Tennesseans’ indulgence in guilty pleasures like the “Southern diet,” tobacco use or the opioid crisis that has continued to plague the state, Tennessee has never been known as particularly healthy. 

And according to the United Health Foundation, Tennesseans’ health is getting worse.

Despite the infant mortality rate falling 16 percent from 8.2 to 6.9 deaths per 1,000 births over the past seven years, Tennessee still fell from the 44th healthiest to the 45th in the America’s Health Rankings Annual Report.

A few key findings — including a notable increase in drug-related deaths and excessive drinking — could point to why the state ranked so poorly.

Drug deaths on the rise

In the past five years, drug deaths have increased 27 percent, from 15.7 to 19.9 deaths per 1,000 Tennesseans. In the last year alone, drug deaths jumped 8.7 percent. Tennessee ranks 39th in the nation for this measure.

Randy Wykoff, dean of the East Tennessee State University College of Public Health, said these numbers likely relate to the opioid crisis that has particularly affected East Tennessee and other regions of Appalachia.

“For the last 10 years or so, we have witnessed an increase in opioid use and opioid-related deaths, which has been particularly bad in Central Appalachia,” he said.

Wykoff said the “long-term challenge” of reversing this trend should be addressed across all disciplines.

“I think it’s one of these problems you need to attack systematically, from programs that stop kids from using, to programs that help users quit, all the way down to helping prevent overdoses. It really requires a broad community approach that includes education, health care, the legal system and criminal justice system,” he said. “That’s true of a lot of health challenges.”

Twenty-nine percent increase in excessive drinking

Though Tennessee fares better than most states in terms of alcohol abuse rates — ranking 6th — the percentage of adults who reported binge drinking or chronic drinking increased from 11.2 to 14.4 percent. It’s a low number in comparison to much of the nation, which averages about 18.5 percent, but this trend concerns many health care professionals, according to Wykoff.

“We’re still one of the lowest 10 in the nation, which is actually one of the best areas for Tennessee,” he said. “While I’d say it’s a signal of concern, I’d like to see what happens with that in the years to come.”

Tennesseans maintain poor diet, high smoking rates, poor general fitness

Tennessee ranks among the 10 worst states when it comes to obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer, which Wykoff said is mainly due to poor fitness, eating habits and a high percentage of smokers.

“I think it’s more important to look at the overall issues. We’re worried about the high rate of smoking, where we’re 43rd in the nation; in obesity, we’re 45th; and in physical activity, we’re 40th. Those are all factors that contribute,” Wykoff said.

Much like the state’s drug epidemic, this trend isn’t impossible to reverse, according to Wykoff. Aside from putting more emphasis on the need for education programs to encourage healthier diets and smoking cessation, he said individuals can do a lot to drastically improve their health. Hopefully, with these combined efforts, he said the state and its residents can see outcomes change through small, healthy steps.

“The good thing about those (unhealthy) behaviors is that we can change them,” he said. “I sometimes feel that people think the changes are too dramatic, like it’s too much to do. But you don’t have to run a marathon to be healthy — you can take more walks with your dog, start a healthy diet and slowly start making healthier choices.”

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