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Huntington area labeled as nation’s most unhealthy

Nov. 16, 2008 @ 06:29 PM

HUNTINGTON — Poor health habits and statistics have once again put the Tri-State in the national spotlight, as an Associated Press article profiles the Huntington metropolitan area as the “unhealthiest” in the country for 2006 and suggests that the area is not very aware of the issue.

While many health care professionals in Huntington say health issues like obesity are a definite problem in the area, they say the ranking singles out Huntington unfairly and health problems certainly don’t go ignored.

“I don’t think that we’re uneducated. I don’t think that we’re uninformed,” said Brenda Hawthorne, clinical nutrition manager and registered and licensed dietitian at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Huntington.

The Associated Press reports that nearly half the adults in the Huntington-Ashland metropolitan statistical area are obese, a much higher percentage than the national average, according to 2006 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that compares about 150 metropolitan areas.

The statistic reflects an area of about 284,000 people in Cabell and Wayne counties in West Virginia, Lawrence County in Ohio and Boyd and Greenup counties in Kentucky.

The data also ties the Huntington metropolitan area with a few other areas for its proportion of people who don’t exercise (31 percent), have heart disease (22 percent) and diabetes (13 percent). It reports that the Huntington area leads the nation in dental problems, with nearly half the people age 65 or older saying they have lost all of their natural teeth.

Some area health care professionals say the Associated Press article misrepresents Huntington, and that the Tri-State area is healthier than it has been in years.

“The information cited doesn’t correlate with the conclusion. The city is being criticized and yet the data they’re referencing includes a huge area not specific to our immediate Tri-State region. I think that’s unfair,” said Dr. Charles McKown, vice president of health sciences and dean of the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University in Huntington.

“It’s a misrepresentation and certainly not a good scientific analysis,” he said.

School of Medicine spokeswoman Beverly McCoy also had some problems with the report. She said the study does not reflect Huntington, but an area of more than 2,159 square miles. Huntington, at less than 16 square miles, makes up less than 1 percent of the metropolitan statistical area, she said.

The Associated Press used 2006 data from the Center for Disease Control’s Behavorial Risk Factor Surveillance System, but the CDC does not intend that information for ranking purposes, said Karen Hunter, senior press officer with the CDC in Atlanta.

According to the 2006 data, 45.3 percent of adults in the region were obese, a percentage almost 10 points higher than any other metro area in the country. The second highest was Detroit at 35 percent.

However, the 2005 survey reported the Huntington area with 34.2 percent of the adults obese, and the 2007 information shows the area at 32.4 percent obese – still very high, but much lower than the 2006 number.

Hunter said she had no explanation for why the Huntington rate would increase 10 points one year and go back down the next, but she stressed that the size of the sample and other factors could be involved. The survey information is based on telephone surveys done by individual state health departments. In the case of the Huntington metropolitan area, that would be data coming from three different state health departments – two counties from West Virginia, one in Ohio and four in Kentucky.

But, Hunter said, the actual incidence of obesity is often higher than the numbers show, because those interviewed often underestimate their weight.

Elizabeth Ayers, public health educator for the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, said poor health in West Virginia is nothing new, but she questioned the validity of the surveys.

Ayers said people picking up the phone and responding to the survey could be those same people who are sitting at home because they don’t exercise.

“A lot of people they might call may be out working out,” she said. “We do have a serious health issue with obesity, but it’s really hard to pinpoint, in my opinion, where exactly these numbers are coming from.”

At least some of the information compiled by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources seems to contradict the Associated Press’ article, according to Fred King, who works with the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System data for West Virginia.

According to the department, only 25.9 percent of Cabell County’s population was reported to be obese based on data from 2002 to 2006.

While Cabell County data does not equal data for the city of Huntington, it is more accurate than numbers for the five counties included in the metropolitan statistical area, King said.

He also said the county’s level of leisure exercise exceeded the state and national average during that time.

McKown said he thinks the Huntington area is much healthier than three decades ago, with its School of Medicine and programs like the undergraduate degree in nutrition and dietetics and the state’s only endocrinology fellowship.

“This is a pretty red hot medical community now,” he said.

He also said the School of Medicine recently implemented “Let’s Get Moving,” a community-based program promoting healthy elementary school children.

McKown said the community also has good places for physical activities such as the YMCA, as well as the new fitness center being built at Marshall.

Ayers said new health initiatives are apparent throughout the area.

“As time goes on, we are introducing new programs in the state and on the county level as well to make people aware and give them options,” she said. 

The health department’s WalkItUp! campaign is one of several efforts started recently to encourage people to exercise daily. The Cabell-Huntington Health Department and the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department worked together to implement the project this year with sponsors such as St. Mary's Medical Center.

Hawthorne said she’d like to see more local exercise opportunities as well as health education in the schools. She said the community could also be made more “walkable.”

Ayers said obesity is a known problem in the area, and childhood obesity in particular needs to be addressed.

In an unscientific poll at www.Herald-Dispatch.com, 64 percent of 367 responders said they think the Huntington area’s health status is worst than most cities.

“There needs to be more parent involvement with providing healthy snacks and promoting exercise within the family,” Ayers said. “Children look to their parents to give them dinner, give them a healthy lunch.”

Many health problems arise from obesity, from high blood pressure to various cancers, and exercise is an important part of prevention. But you can’t force people to exercise, Ayers said.

“That’s what’s hard. But I think the more education that’s there and the more opportunities, it gives people less of an excuse,” she said.

Ayers said it’s not that many overweight people don’t care about their health, but many other factors come into play.

“It’s hard to have that full dedication,” she said. “It’s ultimately a lifestyle change. That’s a personal decision at the end of the day.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.




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