The good news, if you live in Pulaski County: About half the state is likely to not live as long as you will.
The bad news: Almost half the state is likely to live longer.
One of the key pieces of information to come out of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) summit in Pikeville on Monday was a map showing rates of life expectancy for each county in Kentucky. A number of factors are considered, including health, job opportunities, housing, food availability, and access to health care, child care, exercise and social services.
The map was created by Derek Chapman, associate director of research at Virginia Commonwealth University's Center on Society and Health, according to the Associated Press.
Pulaski was ranked among the fifth highest rates in the state, with a life expectancy of 75 years. The highest any county had was 79 years, with others having 79, 77, and 76, the latter being the state average.
The lowest rate was 70, found exclusively among three counties in eastern Kentucky: Perry, Breathitt and Wolfe Counties. Other far eastern counties — Floyd, Harlan, and Owsley — are next at 71 years of age.
It’s a sign that the worst conditions for a long life are in the far eastern part of the Commonwealth — the area represented by Somerset’s own Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers.
“Its been long known that the health in eastern Kentucky is bad,” said Rogers, the longtime Republican U.S. Representative for Kentucky. “The rate of lung cancer, for example, is 87 percent higher than the national average. The same is true in the 60-70 percent number for diabetes, heart disease and so on.”
Mentioning lung disease in particular, one might jump to associate the region’s long history with coal mining as a key factor. Rogers wouldn’t be so quick to make that leap.
“The bad disease problems exist in counties that have never seen a lump of coal,” said Rogers. “I’m no scientist ... to diagnose what causes illness or death, but it’s never been proven to me that surface mining causes bad health. But there are so many possible causes that are more realistic.
“Bad health goes along with poverty. It goes along with genetic inheritance. It goes along with smoking and with dangerous jobs,” he added, “all of which tend to cause an early death. I’m not a physician or an analyst, but I am a realist, and we’re trying to tackle the problem head on.”
One man who is a health expert is Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who was at the SOAR summit. Rogers said that while sitting next to Gov. Matt Bevin, he observed the Kentucky governor taking “a long list” of notes while Frieden was speaking about suggestions on addressing Kentucky’s health struggles.
“The governor is going to keep in touch with Dr. Frieden toward trying to tackle the problem,” said Rogers. “We’re aware of it, we don’t like it, and we’re trying to fix it.”
Specifically, Frieden advises staying physically active and mobile as a major step toward positive health, said Rogers.
“He said, ‘The one thing I would do is walk,’” said Rogers. “Exercise is the world’s best medicine. Anything we can do to promote exercise — walking, swimming, hiking — does good.”
Rogers also addressed the changing economic and industrial landscape of eastern Kentucky. Efforts made in recent years along with the help of former Gov. Steve Beshear to develop a “Super I-Way” or high-speed Internet connectivity initiative with broadband fiber lines could change the quality of life prospects for many in Kentucky’s hardest-hit areas.
“We wanted to let SOAR demonstrate the good things that are happening and there are a bunch,” said Rogers. “There were exhibit by the dozens set up throughout the coliseum demonstrating good things that are happening, putting people to work.”
That includes using Internet technology to create 150 new jobs in Jackson and Owsley Counties — “two of the poorest and smallest in the country,” noted Rogers — and a company in Pikeville called BitSource using laid-off coal miners to enter computer code.
“So the effort and drive to build high-capacity, high-speed Internet cable to every county becomes more and more important every day,” said Rogers.
Among the exhibitors were Pulaski County Judge-Executive Steve Kelley, promoting the “Rattlesnake” section of Ky. 192 connecting Pulaski and Laurel Counties that’s being spotlighted as a scenic motorcycle drive.
“There were probably about 70 or 80 vendors that have different innovative idea they’re doing in the area and region,” said Kelley. “As much as anything, we get to go and see what everyone in the district is doing. They’ll probably take some of our ideas back to their district if they can.
“The whole goal of SOAR is to redefine who we are as Appalachia, to look for new ideas and innovation to try to overcome the devastation the war on coal has had,” he added. “The whole summit was about getting people communication.”