Health

Eastern Kentuckians aren’t living as long as they were 35 years ago. That’s according to a study out Monday in the journal JAMA: Internal Medicine.

In 1980, residents of Owsley County could expect to live to 72. The life expectancy in Jefferson County and across most of the commonwealth was the same.

But by 1991, things started to change. Life expectancy in Owsley County dipped to age 71, while Jefferson County rose to 74. And by 2014, Owsley County life expectancy went down to 70, while Louisville was up to 77.

Eight Kentucky counties lead the nation in the largest decrease in life expectancy since 1980, with Owsley County leading the way at number one, followed by Lee, Leslie, Breathitt, Clay, Powell, Estill and Perry counties.

The rankings reveal what many Kentuckians have known for a while — the causes of earlier death are part of larger systemic problems: prescription drug and heroin abuse, lack of access to healthy food and exercise and high unemployment.

A 2015 survey from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showed 55 percent of people in Owsley County reported having “adequate access to locations for physical activity.”

And in a county of fewer than 5,000 residents, 10.4 percent were unemployed. Census Data from 2012 show that residents there earned among the lowest median incomes in the U.S.

In 2014, Powell County led the state in the number of deaths related to mental illness and substance abuse. That same year, Breathitt County’s high death rates were attributed to an increase is cases of cardiovascular disease.

Given the health barriers residents in these counties face, study authors say policymakers should look to the data in finding solutions.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.