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Life expectancy declines for state’s women

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Women in most of West Virginia are dying younger than they used to, and men in McDowell County are dying younger than anyplace else in the country, according to testimony given Wednesday at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on poverty and life expectancy.

Between 1992 and 2006, female life expectancy got worse in 51 of West Virginia's 55 counties, according to a recent study from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. That study also found that female life expectancy got worse in 43 percent of counties nationwide.

"When I saw that map, I said, 'I don't believe it,'" said Dr. David Kindig, one of the study's authors. "We looked at the county level. When you look at nations and states, almost always, life expectancy goes up. We were shocked."

No other state had a greater proportion of counties with worsening female life expectancy than West Virginia.

Kindig's study found that education level and socioeconomic status were the most important factors in determining life expectancy: The poorer and less educated a community is, the lower the life expectancy.

Men in McDowell County, one of the nation's poorest, die, on average, at age 64, which is 18 years younger than men in Fairfax County, Va., which has the nation's highest male life expectancy.

Two neighborhoods in Baltimore, less than three miles apart, have a 20-year difference in life expectancy.

"In this great country we see huge disparities in terms of how long people live," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging. "In many ways the stress of poverty is a death sentence, which results in significantly shorter life expectancy."

Sabrina Shrader, from Twin Branch Hollow, in McDowell County, was one of six witnesses to testify before the subcommittee about the effects of poverty on health.

"I was born into a family that was afflicted by domestic violence, child abuse and mental illness," Shrader told the subcommittee. "Some say poverty is a death sentence. Frankly, I don't know how many times I have been given that death sentence."

Shrader, who also recently testified before a joint committee of the West Virginia Legislature, was the first person in her family to finish high school and to finish college. She is now working on a master's in social work at Concord University, where she also works for the school's Upward Bound program, which helps low-income kids prepare for college.

She credited the same Upward Bound program, which she participated in, as the reason she was able to finish high school and college. Upward Bound has seen its budget cut by about 5 percent by federal budget cuts known as sequestration, with more cuts looming.

"I am not a success story; I did not pull myself up by my boot straps," Shrader said. "I am proof that we live in a country where, even if you work hard and do everything you are supposed to do, you still may not have enough money to make ends meet. I am still struggling to this day."

Other witnesses spoke of poverty's effects not just in terms of the way it limits healthy options -- the inability to buy health insurance, healthy food, quality housing or a gym membership -- but also in terms of poverty's physiological effects on people.

Being poor increases stress, which makes people less healthy, regardless of what they can or cannot afford to buy.

"Lack of choice and increased stress increases levels of [the hormone] cortisol, and higher levels of cortisol are linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes," said Michael Reisch, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland.

"Poverty is not just a statistic," Reisch said. "Poverty is also a thief. It steals years of life from its victims."

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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