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VOL. 128 | NO. 99 | Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Women’s Health in Tennessee Garners ‘C’ Grade

By Jennifer Johnson Backer

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Women’s overall health in Tennessee improved to a grade of C, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement, according to the Tennessee Women’s Health Report Card.

The biannual report card, which is a collaborative effort of the Vanderbilt Institute for Medicine and Public Health, Meharry Medical College, East Tennessee State University, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and the Tennessee Department of Health, provides a comprehensive look at the overall health status of the state’s more than 3 million women over a five-year span.

The report card measures reproductive health, leading causes of death, modifiable risk behaviors, preventive health practices and barriers to health. While the report highlights positive improvements, it also points out many areas that need attention, especially in supporting lifestyle changes that lead to improved health.

The last time the report card was issued in 2011, overall women’s health in Tennessee received a D.

Health experts pointed to positives, including the state’s 25 percent decrease in the state’s infant mortality rate. The report card issued a B grade overall for infant deaths per 1,000 live births. Infant mortality is an important indicator of the health of a nation and a region.

Dr. Katherine Hartmann

“The declining number of infant deaths is promising, dropping from 16.8 to 12.8 in a five-year span,” said Dr. Katherine Hartmann, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and deputy director of Vanderbilt’s Institute for Medicine and Public Health. “That’s well above what we think it can be, but headed briskly in the right direction.”

According to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s infant mortality rate fell 12 percent from 2005 to 2011, a pattern researchers say may be attributed to a decline in premature births. The infant mortality rate in Tennessee is still above the overall U.S. infant mortality rate of 6.05 deaths per 1,000 births in 2011.

Hartmann said the state’s improvement reflects “concerted community, public health and prenatal care efforts around the state.”

While white and Hispanic women in Tennessee received A grades for the percentage of births that were of very low birth weight and the number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births, African-Americans received an F in both categories – though there was some improvement.

Dr. Karen Johnson

Babies that are born too early and don’t weigh enough have more risk factors that contribute to the infant mortality rate than infants that are born full-term and weigh a healthy amount, said Dr. Karen Johnson, a professor and interim chairman of the Department of Preventative Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Johnson said there are a number of preventative risk factors, including cigarette smoking and sexually transmitted diseases that are known to increase the rates of babies that are born pre-term and are too small.

“Those are very preventable things,” she said. “We also know that Tennessee has some of the highest smoking rates in the U.S. We are trying to address those preventable issues – but we still need to keep doing a better job of it.”

Tennessee also has the sixth highest cancer death rate among the states. About half of these deaths can be prevented through healthy lifestyle changes.

Johnson said smoking is tied to increased rates for a host of cancers, including lung, stomach, oral, bowel, ovarian, cervical and many others.

Overall, Tennessee women received an F grade for cervical cancer deaths per 1,000 women, heart disease, stroke deaths, the percentage of women who smoked during pregnancy and women with high cholesterol.

“I continue to be concerned about the heart disease rate of women in our state,” Johnson said. “There are other risk factors for heart disease that we could address. Our rates of being overweight and obese are pretty high.”

Johnson said she believes the state would see improved overall health in a number of categories, including stroke deaths, cancer and heart disease through preventative efforts to encourage women to lose weight, stop smoking and to live more active lifestyles.

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