Published 7:00 a.m. CT Dec. 26, 2018 | Updated 7:53 a.m. CT Dec. 26, 2018
Cancer deaths have increased 7 percent in Tennessee over the past three decades, showing how the state is falling behind most of the nation, where fewer people are dying of cancer, according to a recent state health ranking study.
Experts said the state’s rising death rate is most likely attributable to Tennessee’s above-average rates of smoking and obesity – two of the most common cancer-causing factors.
“We really need a two-pronged approach,” said Melinda Buntin, who leads the Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Department of Health Policy. “First, giving people who are ready to quit smoking, or ready to engage in more physical activity, the help they need to reach those goals.
“But also, we need to remember that the easiest way to reduce cancer rates in the future is to start early – make sure kids never start smoking and make sure they are getting enough activity and have access to healthy foods. Because we all know how hard it is to lose the weight once you’ve gained it.”
Tennessee’s new cancer statistics come from the United Health Foundation’s annual America’s Health Ranking report, which studies public health on a state-by-state basis. The report further confirms Tennessee’s overall state of poor health – ranking it 42nd in the nation, up three spots from last year – and spotlights more specific problem areas: cardiovascular deaths (45th), diabetes (45th), senior health (44th), women and children’s’ health (42nd), drug deaths (38th) and obesity (35th).
But the rate of cancer deaths appears to be among the most concerning findings, in part because the rest of the country is improving. Since 1990, nationwide cancer deaths have fallen 5 percent to 190 deaths per 100,000 residents. Over the same time period, Tennessee cancer deaths have risen 7 percent to recorded at 218 per 100,000 residents – 46th in the nation.
That rise came as a shock to Dr. Wei Zheng, an epidemiology expert at Vanderbilt who reviewed the state-by-state rankings for the Tennessean. Zheng said he expected Tennessee’s cancer death rate to lag behind healthier parts of the nation, but he still expected the state to have a decreasing death rate.
Zheng recommended a government-funded study to better understand why deaths were increasing.
“This is a serious problem, and we need to look into it,” he said. “We need to find out the reasons so we can stop this upward trend.”
Zheng and other experts said one of the major contributors is smoking, which has fallen out of favor nationwide but clung to popularity in Tennessee, likely because the state has a long history of tobacco farming. Twenty-two percent of Tennesseans are smokers, which is the third highest rate in the nation, according to the new report.
Smoking habits can also be largely predicted by education level, the report states. In Tennessee, 43 percent of Tennesseans who did not graduate high school are smokers, but only 7 percent of college graduates smoke – the single largest gap in the entire country.
Obesity rates high but improving
Fortunately, it’s not all bad news.
Although the United Health Foundation report clearly shows the terrible state of health in Tennessee, one critical finding offers hope of improvement. Tennessee’s overall obesity rate decreased 6 percent in the past year despite the nationwide rate increasing 5 percent.
Tennessee’s overall obesity rate is 33 percent, which is about two percentage points higher than the nationwide average, but the state is at least moving in the right direction, said Dr. Rhonda Randall, a senior adviser to the United Health Foundation.
“You are bucking the trend in a positive way,” Randall said. “Because around the nation our obesity is increasing. Tennessee’s obesity rate is higher than the U.S. as a whole, but the trend is that its still going down. That’s very encouraging if you can stick with it.”
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