CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Women in most of West Virginia are dying younger than they used to, and men in McDowell County are dying younger than anyplace else in the country, according to testimony given Wednesday at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on poverty and life expectancy.
Between 1992 and 2006, female life expectancy got worse in 51 of West Virginia's 55 counties, according to a recent study from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. That study also found that female life expectancy got worse in 43 percent of counties nationwide.
"When I saw that map, I said, 'I don't believe it,'" said Dr. David Kindig, one of the study's authors. "We looked at the county level. When you look at nations and states, almost always, life expectancy goes up. We were shocked."
No other state had a greater proportion of counties with worsening female life expectancy than West Virginia.
Kindig's study found that education level and socioeconomic status were the most important factors in determining life expectancy: The poorer and less educated a community is, the lower the life expectancy.
Men in McDowell County, one of the nation's poorest, die, on average, at age 64, which is 18 years younger than men in Fairfax County, Va., which has the nation's highest male life expectancy.
Two neighborhoods in Baltimore, less than three miles apart, have a 20-year difference in life expectancy.
"In this great country we see huge disparities in terms of how long people live," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging. "In many ways the stress of poverty is a death sentence, which results in significantly shorter life expectancy."
Sabrina Shrader, from Twin Branch Hollow, in McDowell County, was one of six witnesses to testify before the subcommittee about the effects of poverty on health.