Rural Women’s Death Rates Continue to Rise

By: Brooke Semke, Claire Kopsky & Rachel Foster-Gimbel


Death rates for women in rural mid-Missouri have increased by almost 40 percent from 2000 to 2014. There are many reasons why women in rural areas are dying at higher rates than urban women, but, according to Jodi Waltman with the Phelps – Maries Health Department, a lack of education seems to be the common denominator in the trend.

The leading causes of women’s death in Missouri are cancer, heart disease and chronic lower respiratory diseases, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. Waltman said proper education on these three chronic illnesses may lower the mortality rates for women in rural Missouri.

Waltman said women’s health often lies in their own hands. Waltman said she believes if you are smart enough to make good choices, you’re healthy.

“I still think there is a certain percentage of the population too big with a health literacy problem of believing that medical care is your own individual responsibility and that is why you’re healthy,” Waltman said.

Patty McClendon is the public health nursing supervisor for Pulaski County. She has seen an increase in HPV diagnoses in Missouri, which may be causing an increase of cervical cancer in Missouri. She said this could be from the lack of education on sexually transmitted infections.

“Lifestyles have changed,” McClendon said. “A lot of women don’t even know that they have HPV. In rural areas, you might have women that go longer periods of time to have testing or have their pap smear.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cervical cancer can be prevented by protected sex, receiving an HPV vaccine, getting regular check-ups and not smoking.

Smoking is another problem leading to higher numbers in chronic lower respiratory diseases in rural areas.

“All of Missouri has a higher smoking rate, and we have a higher smoking rate in rural areas than metropolitan areas,” Waltman said. “I think that’s generally cultural.”

Phelps County nurse practitioner Sean Harris said that people with lower income and less education also tend to be tobacco users.

“They aren’t educated, or even if they were told in school, the environment which they are raised in affects that,” Harris said.

Another factor contributing to the increase in deaths pertaining to heart disease is unhealthy eating.

Harris said he knows unhealthy eating is a national problem, but, in rural areas, more farmers are not growing their own vegetables anymore, which leads to an unhealthier lifestyle.

“Our society has progressed to not farming, to not growing your own vegetables,” Harris said. “It’s all mass production of food. To get your food now, you go purchase it. So the only exercise you get is to go to your car, go to the grocery store to buy your food and come back home.”

There have been efforts to increase women’s health in Missouri. Show Me Healthy Women is an organization that offers free breast and cervical cancer screenings to women who meet age, income and insurance guidelines in Missouri. The program can provide gas money for those who need transportation assistance to get to clinics.

There are also community gardens offering free vegetables, such as the one run by the Pulaski County Health Department. McClendon said many people in her area don’t realize they have this food option open to them.

“We try to educate people on fresh fruits and vegetables,” McClendon said. “That’s one of the reasons for the community garden.”

Although initiatives are a start, Waltman said that it takes a while to change people’s behavior and that people like fast fixes, but that’s not something that can be done in the time of one congressman’s term of office.

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