Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama still among unhealthiest states in U.S., ranking finds

Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama still among unhealthiest states in U.S., ranking finds

December 11th, 2012 by Chris Carroll in News

Health report

Photo by Laura McNutt/Times Free Press.

5 healthiest states

1. Vermont

2. Hawaii

3. New Hampshire

4. Massachusetts

5. Minnesota

5 Least healthy states

46. South Carolina

47. West Virginia

48. Arkansas

49. Louisiana

49. Mississippi

SEDENTARY LIFESTYLE

(percent of adult population)

Alabama: 33% -- 46th

Georgia: 27% -- 31st

Tennessee: 35% -- 48th

INFANT MORTALITY

(deaths per 1,000 live births)

Alabama: 8.9 -- 48th

Georgia: 7.7 -- 44th

Tennessee: 8.1 -- 45th

The latest set of health rankings won't surprise anyone expecting Southern-fried numbers.

While Tennessee and Alabama have become slightly healthier over the last year, both states remain national cellar dwellers in cardiovascular deaths, obesity and sedentary lifestyle, according to a study released today.

Out of America's 50 states, Georgia finished 36th, Tennessee came in 39th and Alabama ranked 45th in overall health. All three states showed a slight improvement from 2011.

Backed by insurance company United Health Group, the national rankings are based on the United Health Foundation's annual survey of government and academic sources. The study explores dozens of health indicators, including infant mortality, physician availability and cancer deaths.

The study said Alabama has made "no significant improvement over the last 20 years" in overall health.

"We're working with communities and workplaces to promote physical activity," said Dr. Tom McVay, director of health promotions and chronic disease for the Alabama Department of Public Health. "Unfortunately, too many folks here make lifestyle choices that offset those efforts."

Nevertheless, there were glimmers of positivity, and health advocates hope the federal Affordable Care Act will turn the tide in all three states. Officials said mandatory health insurance, subsides for low-income residents and emphasis on preventive care will inspire healthier lifestyles.

"It's going to take time to implement, but access to health insurance saves lives," Tennessee Health Care Campaign interim executive director Brad Palmertree said. "Plus, ACA does away with things like copays for flu shots and mammograms -- that $20 can be a huge barrier for low-income residents."

Key Affordable Care Act benefits don't kick in until 2014. For now, the report highlights diabetes, smoking and obesity; all three are big problems for the tri-state area.

For example, 4.6 million adults from Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama -- 23 percent of the combined population -- are considered obese. A slightly larger number live what United Health officials call sedentary lifestyles; those residents don't get "any exercise or physical activity outside of their regular employment," according to the study.

Of the Bible Belt trio, Georgia showed the biggest year-to-year improvement on lowest incidence of obesity, jumping 11 spots from 38th to 27th.

Logan Boss, spokesman for the 10-county Northwest Georgia Health District, credited Gov. Nathan Deal's year-old Student Health and Physical Education Program.

"It's designed to get Georgia students moving, exercising and physically fit," Boss said. "We know our kids can only reach their full potential without barriers of increased incidents of chronic hypertension, diabetes and heart disease."

Scattered in the report is good news: Tennessee has America's lowest percentage of binge drinkers; Georgia scored the fourth-highest percentage of children with immunization coverage; and Alabama ranks in the top 10 states for public health dollars per person ($116).

Tennessee isn't the only state with its share of responsible alcohol users; Alabama and Georgia finished in the top 15 states with the fewest incidents of binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks for a man or four or more drinks for a woman in a short amount of time.

The five healthiest states are Vermont, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Minnesota.

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6610.