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You Don't Need to Die -- Just Be Like Utah, CDC Says

More than 100,000 Americans who die before their time every year wouldn’t have to if they just took on the habits of people living in the healthiest states, federal officials said Thursday.

Many studies show that different states have greatly different rates of heart disease, stroke, cancer and other diseases. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention experts used data to project just how many people died prematurely, before the age of 80, from preventable causes.

“Your longevity and health are more determined by your zip code than they are by your genetic code,” CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden told reporters.

Cyclists compete in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado. CDC officials say more than 100,000 early deaths could be prevented if people emulated the habits of people in healthy states like Colorado.Doug Pensinger / Getty Images

The CDC looked at five top causes of death in the U.S. in 2010 — heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke and accidents — and compared death rates in the top three states to the other 47. They asked what would happen if Mississippi, for instance, all of a sudden had the same premature death rates from those diseases as Utah.

“The results of this analysis indicate that, when considered separately, 91,757 deaths from diseases of the heart, 84,443 from cancer, 28,831 from chronic lower respiratory diseases, 16,973 from cerebrovascular diseases (stroke), and 36,836 from unintentional injuries potentially could be prevented each year,” the CDC team wrote.

The southeast has long been known as the “stroke belt” and doctors know why: People exercise less, eat unhealthier diets, smoke more and are less likely to have good health insurance and good medical care.

The premature death rates for some conditions vary by as much as three-fold from one state to another, Frieden said.

What makes the healthiest states better? Often public policies, said Frieden. “Their smoking rates may be half,” he said. “Their rates of blood pressure control may be substantially higher.”

Frieden said Minneapolis-St.Paul went from having average blood pressure control rates in 1996, when about 50 percent of people had healthy blood pressure, to a 75 percent control rate in 2008. “Policies make a difference,” Frieden said.

These include subsidies to help poor people buy more fruits and vegetables and limiting where people may smoke. Tough seat belt and helmet laws help prevent accidental deaths. But perhaps the biggest influence comes from encouraging exercise, with policies to build sidewalks and make school playgrounds open to the public.

“We know that even if you don’t lose any weight, being active is the closest thing we have to a wonder drug,” Frieden said.

The CDC admits that the analysis is a theoretical exercise. People who don’t die of cancer may still die of heart disease.

In the analysis, Utah actually got one score of zero — the state seemingly had no preventable deaths from cancer, and only 35 from heart disease. Connecticut had no preventable deaths from chronic lower respiratory diseases such as emphysema, and only five from stroke. Maryland apparently suffers no avoidable accidental injuries.