At the Reger Funeral Home and Chapel in Huntington, West Virginia, owner Patrick Reger says he increasingly sees 50-somethings dying of diseases—like cirrhosis of the liver or lung cancer—that used to mostly kill 80-somethings.
There seems to be an uptick young people drinking heavily and using drugs. “There’s just a lack of employment for people,” he said. “That’s where you find the problems with the drugs. There’s nothing to do.”
The trend he’s seen is playing out across the region: Appalachia, the mountainous region home to about 8 percent of Americans, is falling behind the rest of the United States in life expectancy and infant mortality, according to a new study in Health Affairs.
For the study, the authors, Gopal Singh and Michael Kogan from the Health Resources and Services Administration and Rebecca Slifkin from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, compared deaths data from the period between 1990 and 1992 and between 2009 and 2013, the most recent years available, in the swath of 428 counties that make up Appalachia. They examined life expectancy and infant mortality—two well-established measures of overall public health.
In the early ’90s, the study authors found, the region’s infant mortality rate was about identical to that of the rest of the country, but between 2009 and 2013, it was 16 percent higher. Similarly, in 1992, the average Appalachian had a life expectancy of about 75.2 years, just half a year shorter than the average American. By the 2009 to 2013 study period, the disparity had grown to 2.4 years. In the intervening time—nearly two decades that saw the advent of DNA sequencing and other medical advancements—life expectancy increased by 2.4 years for women outside of Appalachia, but by just a fraction of a year for Appalachian women.