TIPPAH COUNTY, Miss. (WMC) - More Americans are being diagnosed with diabetes today than ever before. It’s a costly and deadly epidemic that’s increasing faster in Southern states.
Tippah County, Mississippi has the highest rate of diabetes in the country, according to 2020 county health rankings released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The WMC Action News 5 Investigators traveled to Tippah County to learn why the diabetes rate there leads the nation and what’s being done to Bridge the Great Health Divide.
The Investigators met Charles and Dorothy Jackson who have lived in Ripley, Mississippi their entire lives.
“We wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” said Dorothy. “We got good cooks and good places to eat and sometimes overeat.”
Charles was diagnosed with diabetes 10 years ago. Dorothy was diagnosed 35 years ago.
They come for regular checks at Primary Care Clinic of Ripley and manage the disease with medication, finger pricks and monitoring as well as diet and exercise.
“It’s really not that big of a deal, just watching what you eat,” said Charles. “You can’t eat some of the things you really want.”
The couple is far from alone in their diagnoses.
In Tippah County, where Ripley is located, one out of every three people has diabetes.
The rate -- 34.1% -- is the highest in the country.
“That was surprising to hear,” said Dr. Sarah French, Primary Care Clinic’s endocrinologist. “Mississippi does have a very high prevalence of diabetes but to know that my hometown has that high of a rate it was a little surprising to learn.”
She stays busy as most of her patients have diabetes.
Type 1 occurs when a body doesn’t make enough insulin. Type 2 happens when a body can’t properly use insulin.
Diabetes can cause high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar and can lead to heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, limb amputations and early death.
The Jacksons have type 2 diabetes, which tends to run in families.
“In part, this is due to children learning bad habits—eating a poor diet, not exercising—from their parents,” according to the American Diabetes Association.
The Investigators asked Dr. French: “How do you treat someone with diabetes?”
“For those early in their disease, we really strive for those lifestyle changes -- working on diet, working on exercise,” said Dr. French. “For those who are further along, who have been diabetic for a few years, that’s working on medications in addition to those lifestyle changes.”
In its early stages, a diabetes diagnosis can be reversed. But lifestyle changes are difficult for anyone, especially when money is tight.
The National Institutes of Health states “individuals with lower income and less education are 2 to 4 times more likely to develop diabetes than more advantaged individuals.”
In Tippah County, both the levels of education and income fall below the national average.
About 15% of people in Tippah County aged 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree, while the national average is 36%.
The average household income in Tippah is $39,425 while the national average is $68,703.
“For some folks, a lack of resources is a problem,” said Dr. French.
Tippah County has three grocery stores with fresh produce. It also has walking trails.
When time is a factor, healthy food choices and exercising isn’t always easy.
“It’s easier to go through McDonald’s than to go home and cook, ya know, because we’re all busy with work and kids,” said Dr. French. “It’s tailoring different solutions for different people for their different problems.”
Diabetes is also an economic problem for Mississippi.
The CDC estimates the disease cost the state $4.8 billion dollars in 2013 with medical costs, lost productivity and premature mortality.
In fact, diabetes kills more people in Mississippi than any other state in the U.S., except West Virginia.
As for the Jacksons, they say they’re managing their diabetes as best they can with Dr. French’s help.
“We don’t want the next train out, but we’re ready to go,” said Charles.
We asked: “Why do you think Tippah County has the highest incidence of diabetes?”
“I truly don’t know,” said Dr. French. “I can’t think of anything that would necessarily be more specific to us compared to next door to Benton County or Marshal County. Hopefully, more folks will not be affected by this as we work on tackling some of these issues; more physical activity, better diet, then maybe it won’t be such a problem in the future.”
Mississippi has several diabetes prevention programs.
The Mississippi Diabetes Coalition offers resources, including financial assistance to individuals with diabetes. You can access that information here.
The Diabetes Foundation of Mississippi offers prevention programs at various facilities across the state. You can find a facility that can help near you by visiting this link.
The Mississippi Department of Health receives funding from the CDC to provide diabetes help and resources. Learn more by visiting this website.