Gooze Views

Peter Galuszka


Mountain Women Die Younger


A national study shows females in poor areas like Radford and Pulaski have diminished life expectancies. Poor diet and lack of insurance are likely culprits.  


Virginia is supposed to be a place for miracle drugs and non-invasive surgery. Preventive medicine is supposed to spot problems before they become lethal. High-tech MRIs and CAT scans can detect diseases like cancer before it can spread. If necessary, complex surgical procedures that would have required a half day in full-dress surgery followed by six weeks of recoup now can be performed in a couple of hours in an outpatient setting.


So, it comes as a bit of a shocker to realize that in some parts of Virginia, life expectancies for women are actually declining. That is the case in mountain areas such as Radford and Pulaski. In 1983, females living in those areas could expect to live 84 years. By 1999, according to The Washington Post, it had dropped by 5.8 years to 78.


The trend in those spots of the Old Dominion was repeated in other sections of the U.S., notably in the Deep South around the Mississippi Delta, in some parts of the Upper Plains and in the Southern Appalachia coalfields not far from Pulaski and Radford. All in all, life expectations for females dropped in 1,000 counties in the U.S. These findings come from a recent report put together by researchers from the University of Washington, The University of California, San Francisco and Harvard.


As in Pulaski and Radford, the common denominator seemed to be that areas showing the declines had lower per capita incomes, less education and locations remote from urban areas. The reports did not posit any reasons for the decline in female health.


Media reports, however, suggest that the deteriorating mortality rates may have a lot to do with lifestyles and eating habits. I buy that and have one more to add – the growing crisis in health insurance, or the lack of it, for lower income people.


The Washington Post sent a reporter to check and she came up with a portrait of not-well-educated females leading sedentary life styles, spending a lot of time on their sofas or pickup truck seats. They drive a lot and when they eat they munch out on “Hamburger Row,” a line of high-carb, high-fat fast food joints near a bridge linking Radford with Pulaski, the Post says.


Besides super-sized fries and soft drinks and Double Whoppers, the ladies also like cigarettes and beer. This adds up to weight gain which in turn leads to what one local general surgeon calls the “Five Fs” – “female, forty, fertile, fair and fat.” The oversized ladies are prone to diabetes, vascular and heart issues and cancer.


To be sure, country folk have a culture of eating high calorie, greasy foods. Doing so is a throwback to the days when people needed hundreds of extra calories since they were so busy in manual farm labor. I noticed it last December when my daughter and I stopped for dinner at a local restaurant in Norton when we were working on a report on the Dominion coal-fired plant in Wise County. The buffet was groaning with fried chicken, greasy ribs, mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, drop biscuits, corn bread, pasta salad and various desserts deluged with whipped cream and confectioners’ sugar. To be honest, I love that type of fare and was lucky my wife wasn’t around.


But combining that kind of Sunday dinner with double quarter pounders with cheese on a daily basis is deadly. So is the utter dependency on automobiles as Ed Risse and Jim Bacon write about so often on this blog.


There is another factor that must play a role. Are these mountain women getting health insurance? It’s a fair question since most health insurance is provided by employers that are in decline in Radford and Pulaski.  Wal-Mart split Pulaski, and furniture plants, a local mainstay, have shuttered because of Chinese competition. Even the local Volvo plant is swarming with layoff rumors. It seems likely that when people are laid off, they go without insurance. COBRA, the government, stop-gap insurance, is extremely expensive and has a limited longevity.


I couldn’t get to the area to report on my own, so I am going to borrow a passage from author Joe Bageant’s wonderful book, “Deer Hunting with Jesus.” He writes about Winchester, but his portrait is universal. One of the locals he describes is Dottie, a 59-year-old, 300-pound woman who regularly belts out Patsy Cline songs at a local karaoke bar. Dottie started working when she was 13 and married at 15. She had to stop working several years ago due to poor health.


He writes: “True to our class, Dottie is disabled by heart trouble, diabetes, and several other diseases. Her blood pressure is so high the doctor thought the pressure device was broken. And she is slowly going blind to boot. Trouble is, insurance costs her as much as rent. Her old man makes $8 an hour washing cars at a dealership, and if everything goes just right they have about $55 a week left for groceries, gas and everything else.” When she applies for public assistance, the local social security workers deny her application, saying she’s able to work.


I know that many Bacon's Rebellion readers are rich Republicans who probably will put a dismissive, cruel and Calvinistic spin on this. They will just say these people should be in control of their lives and if they can’t control their diet, stop smoking and get some exercise, then they deserve to die.


I see a far deeper problem and it starts with providing decent health insurance and health education in places where it is most needed. The time seems to have come when health care should be universal and should be government-mandated and controlled. Obviously, private sector health care is failing miserably, at least in Pulaski and Radford and 1,000 counties in the U.S. The new mortality study is just an early warning siren.


-- May 5, 2008
















Peter Galuszka is a veteran journalist living in Chesterfield County. View his profile here.


(Photo credit: Maria Galuszka.)