NewsLEX 18 In-Depth


18 Kentucky counties top list of least heart-healthy in U.S.

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Posted at 9:41 AM, Jul 27, 2021

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — In Owsley County, life moves at the right pace for Cale Turner.

“We’ve got good folks,” he said, describing his longtime home. “It’s friendly.”

There’s the small-town charm of Booneville, nestled along the back roads of Eastern Kentucky.

“To me, it’s a good place to live,” said Turner, who serves as the county’s Judge-Executive. “But we have major issues.”

Living in the mountains can mean sacrifice. That’s evident in revealing new data about Kentuckians’ heart health.

18 counties in the Commonwealth rank some of the worst in the country when it comes to cardiovascular health. The rural counties make up half of all counties hit hardest by heart disease, according to a new study from U.S. News & World Report. In Owsley County, heart disease impacts more than 10 percent of the 4,000 people who live there.

Dr. Vincent Sorrell is a cardiologist at UK HealthCare in Lexington. He says his experience treating patients from across Kentucky has helped shed light on contributes to poor heart health in the Commonwealth.

“I’ve been here now for a decade or so, so I’ve had a chance to look at the data and meet the patients,” he told LEX18. “I think there’s a multitude of reasons why. We know that disparities of healthcare and disparities of access to healthcare are contributors to heart disease.”

Dr. Sorrell says a lack of information plays a role, as well as transportation and the isolation that comes from rural life.

Turner knows this first-hand.

“I know folks that have damage from strokes, where it took so long to get them to a small hospital,” he said. “Then they shoot you on over to UK or some other hospital in Lexington, and you’ve lost valuable time.”

In fact, there’s no hospital at all in Owsley County. The closest option is in Breathitt County, more than half an hour away. Turner says in the case of a medical emergency, he might be willing to take the risk and drive to Lexington himself, rather than wait for an ambulance.


“A lot of critical time is lost getting folks to where they can get proper medical treatment, especially if someone has had a stroke or a heart attack,” he said.

Turner says diseases like cancer are equally worrisome to him. He’s also concerned about the health impacts of drug use among Owsley County residents. But he remains hopeful a renewed focus on education will help people lead healthier lives and lessen their risk of a heart attack.

Dr. Sorrell agrees. He explained the benefits of the Gill Heart & Vascular Institute Affiliate Network, a partnership between UK HealthCare and community hospitals in Kentucky and West Virginia. The goal is to provide high-quality care where people live, from physicians they know and trust.
“The number one driver to making change is going to be education,” said Dr. Sorrell.

Turner is also looking forward to the completion of the new Highway 30. He says when that happens, Owsley County will get a straight shot to London, saving people precious time when it matters most."I think our little community is a make-in-progress," he said.

According to Dr. Sorrell, there are steps people should take to improve their heart health. Above all, he advises people to stop smoking. He says people should also be aware of the major health risks associated with sleep apnea, which include coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke, and an irregular heartbeat. In addition, Dr. Sorrell says the pandemic has taken its toll on heart health across the country. He advises people to seek immediate emergency care if they’re experiencing any symptoms of a heart attack.

The 18 counties in the Commonwealth are:

  • Magoffin County
  • Owsley County
  • Lewis County
  • Letcher County
  • Clinton County
  • Morgan County
  • Leslie County
  • Floyd County
  • Knott County
  • Elliott County
  • Knox County
  • Breathitt County
  • Wolfe County
  • Harlan County
  • Lee County
  • Clay County
  • Bell County
  • McCreary County