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Study: Death rates from chronic conditions rising in rural America

In rural America, more people die from chronic health conditions and substance abuse than in suburbs and cities, and the gap is widening.

A new study has found that the difference in rural and urban death rates tripled over the past 20 years mostly due to deaths among middle-aged white men and women (Source: “Study: Death rates from chronic conditions, 'deaths of despair' rising in rural U.S.,” United Press International, June 9).

This gap is partly due to access to care, but other factors also contribute, said lead researcher Dr. Haider Warraich, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and the VA Boston Healthcare System. In terms of access, rural areas have seen a wave of hospital closures driven largely by economics, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

"But it's hard to disconnect health from other factors in our societies," Warraich said. "I think it's linked to the overall economic outlook of rural America as well, and also, health behaviors that contribute to poor health, such as poor nutrition, lack of exercise, smoking, substance use, etc."

For the study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Warraich and his colleagues used federal government health data for 1999 through 2019. They found that age-adjusted death rates dropped in both rural and urban areas over that period. But the gap widened dramatically as death rates rose among white rural residents between 25 and 64.

Over the study period, rural death rates increased 12% for that group. Although death rates dropped among rural Black residents, they still had a higher death rate than all other groups in both rural and urban areas, researchers noted.