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Life Expectancy Trending Downward Across Arkansas, America

Arkansas health officials say residents in rural counties don't always have access to healthy food choices, often having to shop in gas stations or convenience stores for their groceries. (Diaz/AdobeStock)
Arkansas health officials say residents in rural counties don't always have access to healthy food choices, often having to shop in gas stations or convenience stores for their groceries. (Diaz/AdobeStock)

December 17, 2019

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Recent studies have found that where you live can have an effect on how long you live, and life expectancy in Arkansas is among the lowest in the country.

One study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found the average life expectancy in America - which had been growing for decades - dropped three tenths of a percent to to 78.6 years between 2014 and 2017, the most recent year numbers were available.

In Arkansas, average life expectancy is only 74.5 years. And according to Namvar Zohoori, chief science officer for the Arkansas Department of Health, which tracks longevity statistics by county, that number can vary widely depending on where you live.

"There is an almost nine-year difference between the lowest life-expectancy county and the highest life-expectancy county,” Zohoori said. “This we've had for a number of years. We're tracking it and trying to work towards eliminating some of those disparities."

In Benton County, in the northwest corner of the state, residents have a life expectancy of almost 80 years. While in Monroe County, in the rural Delta region, life expectancy was the state’s lowest, at only 70.6 years.

Zohoori said a county's relative wealth or poverty can have a direct effect on longevity. He said factors such as poor access to health care and good nutrition can stack the odds against people who live in rural areas.

"A lot of our communities and counties in Arkansas are very rural,” he said. “There is no grocery store with healthy food options. A lot of them have to purchase food at convenience stores or gas stations. There is just not a variety of healthy options that one would wish."

Zohoori said state health officials are working with Arkansas lawmakers to develop public policies that will improve the life outcomes of people in all areas of the state.

"It needs to be a multi-pronged approach to where we try to change the environment as much as possible, put in place policies that help individuals choose healthy lifestyles more easily, and also, working with the health-care system, to make services more accessible,” he said.

According to the AMA report, Arkansas is not alone. The study found regardless of location, Americans have the worst midlife mortality rate among 17 high-income countries, despite leading the world in per-capita spending on health care.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - AR