The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Southeast is home to the most preventable deaths

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The Southeast leads the nation in a less than desirable ranking: preventable deaths.

The states in that region — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee — are collectively home to the highest number of preventable deaths for each of the five leading causes, according to a new Centers for Disease Control analysis.

“These deaths are not random, they are clustered by geography, they are clustered by states,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said.

Nationally, about one in three deaths from heart or cerebrovascular (stroke) disease could have been prevented, while the same was true for just over one in five cancer deaths. Nearly two in five deaths from unintentional injuries and chronic lower respiratory diseases could have been prevented. The five leading causes were behind two out of every three deaths among those under the age of 80 between 2008 and 2010, they found. Nearly 900,000 deaths could have been prevented, they found. (You can see state-by-state rates below.)

The analysis is useful for more than just satisfying morbid curiosity, the study authors argue. Comparing states can help policymakers identify problem areas and craft health policies with achievable goals. “Examining which diseases and injuries result in the greatest number of deaths in populations, particularly for deaths that occur earlier than expected, allows health officials to establish disease prevention goals, priorities, and strategies,” the authors of the analysis write.

To determine which deaths could have been prevented, the researchers first tallied observed deaths by age and cause. They then averaged the three states with the lowest death rates for each cause to create an achievable benchmark. They then used that to calculate the number of expected deaths for each state — i.e. how many would die in each state if their rates matched those of the lowest three. Finally, they subtracted that expected number from the observed deaths to calculate how many could have been prevented. The study had some limitations, they noted, such as errors in diagnosing and reporting causes of death, uncertainty and state affiliation (you may die of heart disease in Florida, but spent your life eating unhealthily in New York).

What can policymakers do to reduce such deaths? For starters, they can focus on the major modifiable risk factors, which according to the CDC are:

  1. Heart diseases: tobacco use, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, poor diet, being overweight, and lack of physical activity.
  2. Cancer: tobacco use, poor diet, lack of physical activity, being overweight, sun exposure, certain hormones, alcohol, some viruses and bacteria, ionizing radiation, and certain chemicals and other substances.
  3. Chronic lower respiratory diseases: tobacco smoke, second hand smoke exposure, other indoor air pollutants, outdoor air pollutants, allergens, and occupational agents.
  4. Cerebrovascular diseases (stroke): high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, being overweight, tobacco use, alcohol use, and lack of physical activity.
  5. Unintentional injuries: lack of vehicle restraint use, lack of motorcycle helmet use, unsafe consumer products, drug and alcohol use (including prescription drug misuse), exposure to occupational hazards, and unsafe home and community environments.