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Health in Chattanooga marked by disparities, optimism

Chattanooga Times, Dec. 14, 2008

In Hamilton County the Alzheimer’s disease death rate is twice as high as the nation’s, according to the latest report by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, formerly the Community Research Council.

That statistic is one of many compiled in the latest installment of the group’s 2008 State of the Chattanooga Region Report. The newest report is focused on health and will be posted on the Ochs Center Web site today, researchers said.

The report, crammed with local data on topics such as leading causes of death, obesity, TennCare use and sexually transmitted disease rates, provides a follow-up to a similar 2006 analysis. The information is drawn from federal, state and local data sources, as well as surveys of Hamilton County residents by the Ochs Center.

“Our general theory is that the public policymakers make better decisions when they have more information available to them about the issues in our community. We hope we’re informing a larger debate and discussion in this case about health,” said David Eichenthal, president and CEO of the center.

The report also reveals that Hamilton County residents may be overly optimistic about their health status: Despite the fact that 62 percent of Hamilton County adults say they are in either excellent or very good health, age-adjusted death rates in the county are higher than the national rates by 13.7 percent. Heart disease, cancer and stroke top the list of death causes in Hamilton County, the report found.

Hamilton County’s death rate from Alzheimer’s was more than double the average for 12 other similarly sized “benchmark counties” across the country.

Chattanooga’s role as a retirement destination and its resources for the aging might draw residents who are more likely to get Alzheimer’s, Dr. John Standridge, a Chattanooga geriatrician and family practice physician. He also said more doctors here may be reporting Alzheimer’s as a cause of death while doctors in other regions might classify a similar patient as dying from complications of the disease, such as poor nutrition.

If there are really more cases of Alzheimer’s in Hamilton County, that underlines the need for more at-home care services and support for family members of those with Alzheimer’s, said Steve Witt, director of the Southeast Tennessee Area Agency on Aging and Disability.

“As this disease continues, we can’t keep them all housed in facilities. There’s not enough public money to do that,” he said.