Of all the challenges Kentucky can expect to face in the years ahead, few if any are bigger than improving our collective health.
In some key areas, we already have a good head start. Kentucky is among the top 20 states in fighting infectious diseases, for example, with the use of vaccines high and the percentage of older citizens getting a flu shot above the national average.
We’re also among the top 20 states that have stricter nutrition standards in our school cafeterias than those required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a statewide survey indicates Kentuckians have greater access to a primary care physician than in many other states.
If there is anything positive about some of the rankings at the other end of the spectrum, it is that, by working together, we can turn many around.
The need to do more is certainly there. Consider that, since the early 1990s, the obesity rate among Kentucky’s adults has nearly doubled, the percentage of citizens with diabetes has tripled, diagnoses of high blood pressure have gone up by 50 percent and our state ranking is at or near the bottom in the prevalence of several types of cancer.
We are also seeing lower percentages of pregnant women getting prenatal care, and the number of infants born premature or with low birth-weight is on the rise.
Findings like these have not gone unnoticed. In January, The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky released a survey showing that more citizens think their parents’ generation was healthier – and that the health of their children’s generation will be worse.
It doesn’t have to be this way, of course, and a lot of work is already being done to make sure we are moving in the right direction.
The General Assembly’s administrative arm, the Legislative Research Commission, has found that there are dozens if not hundreds of local, regional and statewide programs aimed at good nutrition and health.
It also cited a 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing that while we were 45th among the states when measuring the percentage of adults eating fruit, we were 12th in consuming vegetables. On the downside, 16 percent of middle and high school students said they drank three or more non-diet sodas a day, well above the national average of 11 percent.
Efforts are being made to increase access to farm-fresh food. This year, the General Assembly passed a law that will give a tax break to farmers who donate surplus food to those in need. Last year, meanwhile, the Kentucky Association of Food Banks reported that it had distributed more than 900,000 pounds of produce.
Any long-term solution will naturally require more education – and not just about the perils of eating too much and exercising too little. Statistics show that additional learning in the classroom also seems to be a major factor in lengthening lifespan.
According to the CDC, a 25-year-old male with a four-year college degree can expect to live to 81, which is five years more than someone with a high school diploma and nine years more than those without a high school education. Though not as pronounced, the ratios for women are similar.
With that in mind, it is worth noting a June study by the Kentucky Youth Advocates on our children’s overall well-being. It put us 28th among the states in education, and our health ranking not much lower at 31st.
While those numbers are certainly not as good as we would like, they do indicate that our younger Kentuckians’ future is brighter than many might think. We still have time to reverse the belief that our children’s collective health will be worse than our own.