Can Your Geographic Location Predict How You’ll Die?

There are a lot of factors that go into where you live. Maybe you were born there, maybe you relocated for work, maybe you moved to be closer to a loved one or maybe you’ve just always wanted to live there, but did you know where you live could also predict how you might die?

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, what causes a person’s death depends greatly on where they spend their lives. For the study, researchers reviewed more than 80.4 million deaths recorded from 1980 through 2014 in the United States, analyzing mortality rates for 3,110 counties or groups of counties.

Neoplasms (Cancer)

Very high mortality rates were observed in counties along the southern half of the Mississippi River, in eastern Kentucky and western West Virginia, as well as in western Alaska, despite the mortality rate from neoplasms dropping more than 20 percent overall between 1980 and 2014. On the opposite end of the spectrum, low mortality rates from cancer were observed in states stretching from Idaho and Wyoming to western Texas.


Cardiovascular Diseases

Cardiovascular diseases accounted for 39.8 percent of recorded deaths during the study, the largest of any other cause of death. In 2014, cardiovascular diseases were the leading cause of death in 97.1 percent of counties. The highest rates in 2014 were observed in counties in a band stretching from Oklahoma to Mississippi and in eastern Kentucky, while the lowest rates were observed in counties in central Colorado and near the border of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.


Diabetes, Urogenital, Blood and Endocrine Diseases

Mortality rates for these diseases were particularly high in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi along the Mississippi River and in counties in North Dakota and South Dakota with Native American reservations. The mortality rate from these diseases increased by 21 percent overall during the study, while pockets of counties in Maryland, central Colorado and northwestern Alaska experienced declines in mortality.


Neurological Disorders

Unlike the other major causes of death observed in the study, neurological disorders did not take on a broad regional geographic trend. Most counties throughout the United States experienced an increase during the study with exceptionally large increases observed in southern counties stretching from eastern Texas and Oklahoma to Alabama. Notable declines were seen in counties in the west stretching from central Idaho and western Montana to Central Colorado.


Chronic Respiratory Diseases

Rounding out the top five leading causes of death in 2014, chronic respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, were seen in elevated numbers in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia and in southeastern Colorado. The lowest mortality rates were found in the Washington, DC, area, the upper Midwest, southern Florida, southern Texas and central Colorado.


Self-harm and Interpersonal Violence

The highest mortality rates were observed in counties in Alaska, in Native American reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota, and in states in the Southwest, while lower rates were found in the upper Midwest, New England, southwestern Texas and southern California.


Transportation Injuries

Lower mortality rates for transportation-related injuries were found in more urban areas while, conversely, higher rates were found in more rural areas. Countrywide, the mortality rate from transport dropped 45.4 percent between 1980 and 2014.


Mental and Substance Use Disorders

Exceptionally high mortality rates were found in a cluster of counties in eastern Kentucky and southwestern West Virginia; in counties in North Dakota, South Dakota, and southwestern states with Native American reservations; and in Alaska. Conversely, the lowest rates in 2014 were found primarily in counties in Nebraska, Iowa, and eastern South Dakota. The mortality rate due to mental and substance use disorders increased by 188% overall while rates in several clusters of counties in Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, western Pennsylvania and east-central Missouri increased by more than 1000 percent between 1980 and 2014.


Cirrhosis and Other Chronic Liver Diseases

Counties in eastern Arizona, New Mexico, and south and western Texas and selective counties in Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota had the highest mortality rates, while counties in eastern South Dakota and Kansas as well as in Iowa and southern Minnesota had the lowest mortality rates. While mortality from this cause decreased by 15.6 percent, notably larger increases were seen in southwestern Oregon and northwestern Texas during the study.


Diarrhea, Lower Respiratory and Other Common Infectious Diseases

Mortality rates from this cause were highest in counties in southern states from Louisiana and Arkansas to Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, while rates were lower than average in southern Florida, New England, the upper Midwest, central Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest.


According to researchers, four issues mainly impact what researchers see in county-level death trends:

  • Social and economic factors, where poorer communities are less likely to live healthily.
  • Access to health care, with some counties having many more uninsured people.
  • The quality of health care, where doctors and patients are less likely to work together and follow up on control of risk factors, such as blood pressure or cholesterol.
  • Preventable risky behaviors, including smoking, eating a poor diet, lack of physical activity and use of alcohol or drugs.

Ali Mokdad, lead researcher and professor with the department of global health at the University of Washington, said if counties and city health departments are armed with this sort of information, they can more easily focus their efforts on the specific problems affecting their communities. He also hopes this study will help counties get funding to confront their particular health dilemmas.

Are  you worried about your risk factors? Curious about whether a nagging ache or pain might be indicative of an underlying issue? Complete one our quick-and-easy assessments to learn more about your risks.

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