In a recent CDC study, rates of “potentially preventable deaths” in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi were much higher than in Georgia, and the Southeast had the highest rate among U.S. regions, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report said. AJC file/Vino Wong vwong@ajc.com
Photo: Vino Wong
Photo: Vino Wong

Thousands die unnecessarily in Georgia each year

Thousands of deaths in Georgia every year could be prevented if people in the state had healthier lifestyles and better access to health care, the CDC reported Friday.

The five leading causes of death – heart disease, cancer, lung disease, stroke and unintentional injury – kill 28,000 people annually, and as many as one-third of them could survive if they had consistent preventive care, the report found. Many would not die if they simply lived in another state.

None of those healthier states, however, was in the South. Rates of “potentially preventable deaths” in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi were much higher than in Georgia, and the Southeast had the highest rate among U.S. regions, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report said.

“Yeah, it’s striking,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in response to a question during a teleconference with reporters. “If you look as an example at heart disease among 50- to 59-year-olds, the rate in Minnesota, Utah, New Hampshire is less than a third what the rate is in Mississippi. Three times more likely at that age.”

The CDC report, the first to calculate potentially preventable deaths by state, counted “deaths observed,” “deaths expected” and “potentially preventable deaths” for each of the five leading killers in the 50 states.

Nationwide, the five leading causes of death kill about 900,000 people per year; the CDC said 20 percent to 40 percent of those deaths could be prevented.

The study determined that the healthiest states to live in are all well outside the South. In Minnesota, for example, the CDC found there were fewer heart disease deaths than expected. Oregon, which also scored well, had a “preventable” rate of 2 percent on heart disease deaths. In Georgia, the rate was 44 percent, and in Mississippi, 58 percent.

Cindy Zeldin, executive director of the advocacy group Georgians for a Healthy Future, said the report offers lessons to Georgia.

“I hope it’s something policymakers see and think about,” she said. “There is something we can do, if we think about states that have minimized their preventable deaths through deliberate public health interventions.”

The state cigarette tax is a prime example, Zeldin said. Georgia’s tax of 37 cents a pack is lower than 47 other states’ (Louisiana's and Virginia's are lower still). Minnesota’s tax, seventh-highest, is $2.83. Zeldin said raising the tobacco tax has been shown to deter smoking among youths. “That’s something we can and should do,” she said.

Frieden talked about simple prevention measures, such as making people aware that they have high blood pressure and giving them medications to control it, and the simplest and cheapest therapy of all: walking.

“We know that even if you don’t lose any weight, being physically active is the closest thing we have to a wonder drug,” he said. “It reduces blood pressure, it reduces cholesterol, it reduces your risk of arthritis, it improves mood and improves independence, it improves mobility, obviously. So there are things that can be done that really do make a big difference.”

In an unrelated report also issued this week, the Commonwealth Fund ranked the states according to health care access, quality, costs and outcomes between 2007 and 2012. Georgia came in at No. 45, having fallen from No. 35 in 2009. Minnesota was ranked No. 1.

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