The health of the GroWNC population, if measured only in terms of the frequency of illness or disease (morbidity) and the number of deaths (mortality), is relatively consistent with the health of the U.S. and North Carolina populations, with a few exceptions.
Based on data collected yearly in every county in the North Carolina Community Health Assessment, there are four chronic illnesses named consistently as the leading cause of death. They are heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease (CLRD), and cerebrovascular disease (stroke). Based on the data presented in the NC Health Data Book 2012, all five counties now have a fifth leading cause of death in common: Alzheimer’s disease.
In addition, obesity, especially among children, has become a major issue in all five counties. Haywood County saw an increase in obesity between 2002 and 2008 from 16 percent to 21 percent. In Buncombe County, more than half of all adults were either overweight or obese in 2010.
Health care providers are also increasingly aware of mental health issues, including depression that plagues Western North Carolina. Most counties have reported a lack of facilities and providers to serve those struggling with mental health issues. In Buncombe County, one in three survey respondents reported depression in the past year. In Madison County, 27 percent percent of survey respondents report they have been told they have depression. Closely linked to the prevalence of mental health issues is substance abuse. Substance abuse in the region includes the abuse of alcohol, prescription medication, and illegal drugs. For example, alcohol is Haywood County’s primary substance abuse issue. Chronic liver disease/cirrhosis has been identified as a leading cause of death in Haywood County, which indicates a high use of alcohol by the population. Methamphetamine—the leading illegal drug of choice for Western North Carolina—and the illegal use of prescription medications are the leading substances associated with addiction and abuse in Henderson County.
Access to health care is also identified as a key problem in every county, though how each county defines “access” differs. It refers to a wide range of issues that each county is facing, including a lack of providers, lack of facilities, lack of transportation to facilities, affordability, and barriers related to insurance and language. Many residents have to drive significant distances to access their nearest facility.
In recent years, health care professionals and interested stakeholders have expanded the way they think about health to consider prevention and health promotion as components of a well-rounded approach to health and wellness. If social, environmental, and economic conditions along with behaviors (a wide array of health determinants) can be controlled or modified, then the risk for some injuries, diseases, or death can be lessened or prevented.
More importantly, we can increase opportunities for achieving optimal health, improving upon—not simply accepting and maintaining—our current state. Recognizing the identified linkages, health initiatives must be developed with the intent of preventing, not just treating, health problems and promoting overall health and well-being.
Read more about this theme in the Healthy Communities section (pdf) of the Regional Plan.