Thinkstock photo / Among the significant improvements in the health report are declines in stroke (39 percent), heart disease (32 percent), motor vehicle accidents (22 percent), cancer (20 percent) and chronic lower respiratory disease (14 percent).

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The number of Hamilton County residents dying from stroke, heart disease, cancer and auto accidents has dropped significantly in recent years, but deaths due to drug overdoses, suicide, and accidental falls are up significantly, according to a new report by the Hamilton County Health Department and the Regional Health Council.

The health of blacks has gotten better, but is still significantly worse than the white population, with blacks 3.6 times as likely to die of kidney disease, 2.7 times more likely to die of diabetes, and black women 74 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than white women.

"The disparities have historically been there in a lot of areas," said Ione Farrah, a health data specialist who helped prepare the report. "They are getting smaller, but in particular with kidney disease and diabetes mortalities, that is pretty eye-opening."

The report summarizes progress toward meeting health goals set by the federal government for 2020. It includes more than 80 pages of statistics and charts on a range of health and demographic factors, from the number of teens smoking marijuana in the past month (20 percent) to the number of dentists per 1,000 residents (fewer than 1) and the number of new AIDS cases (43 in 2013). The dates of the data vary, depending on what is most recent, according to Farrah.

Among the significant improvements are the declines in stroke (39 percent), heart disease (32 percent), motor vehicle accidents (22 percent), cancer (20 percent) and chronic lower respiratory disease (14 percent). The teen birth rate continued to plummet, falling 62 percent between 2006 and 2013. Overall infant mortality fell by 29 percent, and by 34 percent among black infants.

Air quality in the county continues to improve. In 2013 and 2014, there were no days where the air quality index was in the unhealthy range, compared to an average of five to seven days of unhealthy air in each of three previous years. That is a huge improvement from 1969, when federal officials labeled Chattanooga as having the dirtiest air in the U.S.

But there is plenty of worrisome news in the report. Cases of Alzheimer's disease are up 29 percent, reflecting the aging of Hamilton County's population.

Accidental poisonings were up 185 percent, largely because of an increase in drug overdoses, which are counted as poisonings. Of the 77 poisoning deaths in the county in 2012, 66 were due to drug overdoses.

According to the report, much of that is due to the widespread abuse of prescription drugs.

"They are widely available because they are legal, and then there are problems with over-prescription and having them fall into the hands of the wrong people for whom they are not prescribed," health department spokesman Tom Bodkin said.

Suicides were up 27 percent, and accidental falls increased by 85 percent, again reflecting growth in the senior population.

The overall population of the county grew by only 11 percent between 2000 and 2013, but the population aged 55-64 increased by 55 percent and over 65 by 20 percent. That's compared to a 7.8 percent decline among 35-to-44-year-olds.

Overall, life expectancy in the county grew from 76 years in 1999 to 77.4 years in 2013.

Accidental falls were the most frequent cause of injury visits to area hospital emergency rooms, more than double the total for car wrecks, poisonings, firearms incidents, fires and drownings combined. Of the 26 deaths in 2012 attributed to accidental falls, 19 involved people 65 and older and 11 were people 85 and older.

Fewer people died in motor vehicle accidents but there were more accidents overall, with the data suggesting distracted drivers are to blame. Crashes blamed on distracted driving rose from 1.7 per 1,000 licensed drivers in 2008 to 3.6 in 2013. Accident rates among drivers aged 15 to 24 went up by 28 percent during that period, giving Hamilton County the worst crash rate for young drivers of any county in the state.

Blacks in Hamilton County have a life expectancy of 73.4 years, 4.5 years shorter than for whites. Overall, their mortality rate for cancer is 19 percent higher than that of whites, but for prostate cancer, the rate for black men is double that of white men.

The county's Hispanic population more than doubled from 2000 to 2013, increasing from 1.8 percent of the population to 4.6 percent, reflecting a similar growth across the state of Tennessee.

Contact staff writer Steve Johnson at sjohnson or 423-757-6673.