Do you live in one of America’s sickest cities?

By John James
Published July 17, 2020

Key Takeaways

After 6 years, the health toll of the Flint, MI water crisis is surfacing. While high levels of lead caused rashes and irritation early on, local physicians are starting to understand how the contamination affects the health and brain development of the city’s children. “They were poisoned by this water,” Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH, FAAP, who heads a Flint-based pediatric public health initiative out of Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital, recently told 60 Minutes. “They were all exposed to toxic water.”

Had these kids grown up elsewhere, they may have avoided the health conditions that are beginning to emerge. Each community carries its own health risks, but patients in some areas are more likely to face threats to their mortality than others. And some cities face a barrage of negative health factors, from higher smoking rates and prevalence of heart disease to pollution and lack of access to healthcare. So, what are the sickest cities in the US and what are the common ailments in each?

MDLinx probed private rankings, public health analyses, and news reports to try to answer those questions. While the insights gleaned don’t offer a definitive ranking and shouldn’t be used to influence where one chooses to live, they spotlight cities that are facing formidable or unique health challenges. After all, science has shown that living environments can have a major impact on health and longevity.

In no particular order, here are 6 of the sickest cities in the US.

Memphis, Tennessee

Memphis, TN

Considering the mouth-watering fried food options available in Memphis, it might be unsurprising that the city holds the top spot on WalletHub’s ranking of the most obese and overweight US cities. The ranking accounts for Memphis’s share of overweight and obese adults, teenagers, and children, along with the projected obesity rate by 2030. Furthermore, the area’s ranking for poor health consequences and food and fitness rankings were also extremely low. While the city didn’t score the ‘top’ spot for this ranking, its score was near the bottom of the list. Meanwhile, another online ranking, published by ACLS Medical Training, found that Memphis residents live in the nation’s worst city for heart health. The problem is due, at least in part, to the high poverty rate, which limits the availability of healthy food and access to healthcare, according to the American Heart Association.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Oklahoma City, OK

This state capitol earned last place in the wellness technology company MindBody’s recent health ranking of the most populous US cities. Number crunchers declared Oklahoma City the most sleep-deprived community in the country, with just 38% of residents reporting a full night’s sleep. Studies have shown that poor sleep can impart a number of health detriments and worsened quality of life. What’s more, the majority of the city’s residents don’t consume enough fruits and vegetables (76.8%), don’t exercise regularly (51.7%) and are unsatisfied with their overall health (69.4%), a perfect recipe for poor health.

Flint, Michigan

Flint, MI

As dangerous as lead-polluted water is, Flint residents are up against several other health risks. For one, the economically disadvantaged city has the sixth highest violent crime rate in the US as of 2018. (For nearly 3 decades, the CDC and other experts have considered violence a public health issue.) According to FBI crime statistics, the community recorded more than 970 violent crimes per 50,000 residents in 2017. Then there’s the high prevalence of coronary heart disease: 9% among a population of almost 100,000. Researchers, meanwhile, have found evidence suggesting that this deadly disease might be linked to lead exposure.

Corpus Christi, Texas

Corpus Christi, TX

While healthcare is one of the top employers in this city of roughly 326,000 on the Gulf of Mexico, its residents are among the most at risk of developing cancer, according to a 2017 analysis. But this is no surprise as the city has among the highest smoking rates across the US. Although Corpus Christi enacted various smoking bans years ago, Texas has yet to pass comprehensive anti-smoking legislation. Cigarettes aren’t the only problem, though. In labeling Corpus Christi the most cancer-prone city, data analysts also cited a high share of inflammatory disease diagnoses. In addition, the Wall Street Journal ranked the city third for highest death rate increase from cardiovascular disease for those between 45 and 64 years of age.

Cabell County, West Virginia

Cabell County, WV

With a population of just under 92,000, this rural county is no bustling metropolis. When reporters sounded the alarm on the opioid crisis in West Virginia in 2015, the state had the highest number of overdose deaths in the country and was second only to Ohio for heroin deaths. Fueling that opioid crisis in WV was Cabell County. Although there have been ongoing efforts to overcome the opioid crisis in Cabell County, it remains an issue today. In addition, a recent US News and World Report analysis found that the community suffers 79.2 deaths of despair per 100,000 Medicare recipients, meaning residents bear a heightened risk of death by drug overdose, suicide, and alcohol-related disease. Cabell County bottomed out on the Healthiest Communities rankings—with a mental health score of 0.

Detroit, Michigan

Detroit, MI

Stress kills, literally. It can lead to cardiovascular disease and depression, aggravate diabetes, increase your risk for Alzheimer disease and cancer, and even lead to cancer progression, to name a few. When MindBody released its Wellness Index ranking earlier this year, Detroit landed the second worst spot on the list largely because of its high percentage of smokers and stressed-out citizens. More than 40% of respondents said they were experiencing stress, which can contribute to conditions such as anxiety, headaches, and even heart disease. Half of the city’s population pointed to money issues as a key stressor. And it’s impossible to overlook Detroit’s murder rate, the third highest in the nation, as of 2018.

What you can do

It’s obvious that many factors and social determinants can either fortify or jeopardize health. However, physicians and researchers can use the knowledge of what’s happening in their communities to better study and treat vulnerable patient populations.

Last year, for instance, the United Hospital Fund released a framework to help primary care physicians address social determinants of health such as food insecurity and poverty, which contribute to the health problems described in this article. The organization suggests physicians begin screening patients for social determinants of health, with an emphasis on risks prevalent in their communities. Doctors can strike partnerships with local organizations to connect patients with social services. Outcomes and developments should ultimately enter a patient’s electronic medical record and be discussed in future visits, the report noted.

The key to overcoming community’s health challenges lies in understanding and confronting them. A known risk, after all, is more manageable than a hidden threat.

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