Unhealthy habits contribute to death rates of Alabamians

MONTGOMERY — Heart disease, cancer and strokes were the top three killers of Alabamians in 2000, the same as in the rest of the nation.

But people in Alabama tend to die sooner and more often from these causes, a trend bolstered by a recent state Health Department report and one public health officials attribute largely to the unhealthy habits of Southerners.

“We eat too much and don’t get enough exercise,” said State Health Officer Don Williamson. “We in Alabama tend to smoke more than the rest of the nation, weigh more and are less active.”

Restricted access to health care more prevalent in poor and minority communities can mean conditions rooted in unhealthy behavior go untreated. But prevention is the best chance of battling the higher-than-average death rates, Williamson said.

Heart disease has been the leading cause of death in Alabama since 1926, and death rates exceed the national average each year, Williamson said. The death rate from heart disease is higher for black Alabamians than for white ones.

While the battle of the bulge is a national problem, obesity is more prevalent in the South and Midwest, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If Americans are fat, Alabamians are the fattest of them all, according to one study. Alabama has the highest percentage of residents in the overweight or obese category, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Sixty percent of Alabamians are overweight, compared to a national average of 55 percent.

Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in Alabama and stroke is the third.

“We have a slightly older population, and we have a higher risk population,” said Albert Woolbright, director of the Division of Statistical Analysis for the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Alabama ranks No. 10 in the nation for the percentage of people who smoke cigarettes, according to the foundation. In Alabama, 25.2 percent of people smoked, compared with a national average of 23.2. Kentucky had the highest smoking rate, at more than 30 percent. Woolbright said higher death rates tend to occur in communities with socio-economic disadvantages. White residents in general have a longer life expectancy than black Alabamians.

“Certainly, race disparities are something of continuing concern,” said Don Bogie, a demographer with Auburn University Montgomery. “White females can expect to live about 79 (years), but black females about 76. Black males can expect to live about 68. White males can live to about 72.”

Accidents are the fourth-leading cause of death in Alabama, and the one Williamson said the state has the best chance of attacking. Increasing seat belt usage and improving the emergency room system could help, he said.

“Except for the Birmingham area, we don’t have organized trauma systems,” Williamson said.