And that is good news, said Randy Wykoff, dean of the College of Public Health at East Tennessee State University.
Wykoff was a keynote speaker Thursday during day one of the sixth annual East Tennessee Environmental Conference held at MeadowView Conference Resort and Convention Center.
His speech set out to answer two questions: What is the health status of Tennessee, and what can be done about it?
Wykoff said two things are commonly used to determine an area's health status: life expectancy and infant mortality.
According to his presentation:
•The average life expectancy for Americans in 2006 was 77.85 years - placing the United States 29th in the world.
•Tennessee was ranked 45th in the nation for life expectancy in 2006.
•The infant mortality rate in the United States in 2006 was 6.43 per 1,000 - placing the nation 34th on a worldwide ranking.
•Tennessee was ranked 47th in the nation for infant mortality in 2006.
•A national study ranked Tennessee 47th out of 50 states in overall health in 2006, based on 18 measures.
•That was a drop from being 37th in a similar ranking in 1990.
But there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic, Wykoff said.
"These problems are not inevitable. ... They're not unsolvable," Wykoff said. "We know what the problems are, and we know how to solve them."
Wykoff said looking at a generalized list of the top causes of death - heart disease, lung disease, etc. - can be daunting.
But looking at the "actual" leading causes of death in 2000 - tobacco use (18.1 percent), diet/activity (15.2 percent), alcohol (3.5 percent) shows most are more easily prevented than cured.
And most begin in childhood and adolescence.
"We need to have prevention plans to focus on children," Wykoff said.
Over the span of the 20th century, Americans' average life expectancy increased by about 30 years, Wykoff said.
Research has shown that only five of those years was added due to better medical treatment or technology, he said - the other 25 were attributed to public health efforts at prevention and education.
Wykoff suggested a plan for dealing with the state's health problems that includes: increased public awareness, including environmental health; investment in prevention programs; building coalitions to address the public health challenges facing the state and region; and increasing the number of people in the region trained for work in public health.