Life expectancy in Lowndes: County ranked third for shortest life expectancy, attributed to chronic health concerns

Published 10:49 am Tuesday, January 24, 2023

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Lowndes County citizens experience an average life expectancy of 70.3 years — 4.5 less than the statewide average and the third shortest among Alabama counties.

And while a variety of factors contribute to longevity outcomes, officials and providers within the county attribute the low average to chronic health conditions like heart conditions, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and factors contributing to those conditions.

“Most of it is noncompliance, not taking medication, mostly for high blood pressure and diabetes,” said Tonya Wilkes, nurse coordinator at Hayneville Family Health Center.

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Wilkes said a variety of factors impact noncompliance, such as forgetfulness or unwillingness to take medications and financial constraints limiting a person’s ability to purchase medications.

In December, Stacker ranked Lowndes County as third among Alabama counties with the shortest life expectancies, using 2022 County Health Rankings & Roadmaps from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

According to a 2020 U.S. Census Bureau report, life expectancies across the nation have risen over the past four decades to the age of 79, but an August 2022 release from the Center for Disease Control outlines a decline in life expectancies since 2020.

According to Lowndes County Coroner Terrell Means, 275 deaths were reported in Lowndes County for 2022. Eight of those were homicides, and three were attributed to suicide.

“Most of our deaths are health-related, due to the fact that we don’t have paramedic services here,” Means said. “We don’t have a rural county hospital or 24-hour clinic. It takes 30 minutes [to transport a patient] from Hayneville to Montgomery. On top of that, if the paramedics are on a call, it takes an extra 15 to 20 minutes to get someone from out of Montgomery to Lowndes County, depending where people are in Lowndes County.

“We deal with a bunch of congestive heart failure situations. We have a lot of diabetics and cancer patients in the county. We don’t have a facility here and truly don’t have dependable paramedic services. Volunteer fire departments respond, but they don’t always have someone they can send to help.”

The Hayneville clinic provides primary care and walk-in services to roughly 80 Lowndes County residents each week. Around 40-50% of those patients struggle to comply with recommended treatments for their chronic illnesses, Wilkes said, which contributes to shorter life expectancies.

“If you’re a diabetic and do not take medication as prescribed, it can cause kidney disease,” Wilkes said. “If you have high blood pressure that is not treated it can harm your heart, causing heart disease, heart attack, or stroke. High blood pressure, over time, puts stress on the body organs, damaging the heart and kidneys, which can lead to death.”

Joseph Rightmyer, Alabama Department of Public Health East Central District Clinic Director, said while many people consider chronic health conditions like hypertension a disease for older citizens, the condition can impact even younger adults who may be at higher risk and contribute to shorter life expectancies when left unmanaged.

“Hypertension can lead to a lot of problems in terms of heart disease,” Rightmyer said. “It can sneak up on you, especially African Americans because they’re at higher risk. You don’t think you will have health problems in your 30s, but if you’re in a high-risk group, sometimes it can sneak up on you.”

Residents have limited access to healthy foods in the area, which compounds the problem, Wilkes said, and transportation is a consideration too.

Lack of affordable transportation keeps many adults and younger people from getting preventative health care, she said. Many residents with chronic health conditions are unable to get the care they need for their condition.

Editor’s note: This report is the first of a four-part series of articles highlighting lowered life expectancy rates in Lowndes County. Part 1 outlines leading contributing factors to the lowered life expectancy in the county. Check out the Feb. 2 edition of The Lowndes Signal for Part 2, which will cover what local government agencies and organizations can do to reverse this trend.