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Death rates - and causes of death - vary widely across the U.S., according to a new study that looked at thousands of individual counties.
The county-specific findings, available online (bit.ly/1nUtNEw), may illuminate areas and issues needing attention, the research team says.
"Within any individual county, knowing how big of a problem a condition is" can help counties know which conditions need attention, resources and policies, said the study's lead author Laura Dwyer-Lindgren, of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Also, she told Reuters Health, knowing how causes of death change over time in one county may help identify ways to address that same issue in another.
For the new study, the researchers used data on more than 60 million deaths in 3,110 U.S. counties or groups of counties from 1980 through 2014.
As reported in JAMA, rates of death, and causes of death, varied widely. For example, death rates from cardiovascular disease tended to be highest in counties near the southern half of the Mississippi river.
Also, death rates from self-harm and interpersonal violence were highest in southwestern counties, while the highest rates of death from chronic respiratory issues were in eastern Kentucky and western Virginia.
Death rates and causes also changed over time, according to the researchers.
The study can't say why death rates and causes of death fluctuate and vary so widely by county.
"It’s probably reasonable to guess that part of the variation is to due to variations in risk factors," said Dwyer-Lindgren, such as obesity, social and economic status and access to healthcare.
In an editorial, Dr. Cheryl Clark of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston and David Williams of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health write that the researchers "have provided powerful tools with which to examine geographic inequalities in health."
Dwyer-Lindgren hopes the data will be used by public health officials and clinicians. Also, she said, "We’re hoping lay people will make use of these estimates in their own communities to possibly advocate for policies they think would be most beneficial based on that information."