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AgCenter program strives to improve West Carroll Parish health

News Release Distributed 08/18/14

OAK GROVE, La. – With a 35 percent prevalence of obesity, Louisiana is the heaviest state in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The side effects of that statistic are serious: many residents also suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other health problems.

Louisiana's statewide figures are higher than national averages, but they are still lower than what is found in West Carroll Parish, according to a survey conducted by Stephanie Broyles, assistant professor at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge.

Survey results indicate nearly half the residents of West Carroll Parish are obese and have high blood pressure. A quarter have diabetes. One in ten residents has had a heart attack.

For the past year, researchers and educators at the LSU AgCenter, Southern University Ag Center and Pennington have been working to identify ways to improve the health profile of West Carroll Parish, which is located in rural northeastern Louisiana. Through a joint initiative called Healthy Communities, organizers are striving to expand access to healthier food and physical activity opportunities.

Monica Stewart, an LSU AgCenter agent coordinating the program, told attendees of an Aug. 12 community advisory meeting that the first year of Healthy Communities has been wonderful. The program kicked off with a health fair in October 2013 and has since sponsored a communitywide health assessment and educational programming in schools.

A theme has been encouraging people to think about choices they make and how they affect their health and the health of others.

"One thing we each can do is model healthful behaviors to others around you," Stewart said.

When children see their parents eat unhealthy foods, for example, they may pick up those bad habits. Healthy Communities is striving to create lifelong habits instead of brief, one-time changes, said Gina E. Eubanks, LSU AgCenter associate vice chancellor for nutrition and food science and Southern Ag Center vice chancellor for extension.

"We're living longer now and we want to maintain good health so we can enjoy life and continue to contribute to the community," Eubanks said.

Breaking unhealthy habits, however, can be difficult, especially in places like West Carroll Parish. Residents are surrounded by poor health and its consequences.

Broyles has been collecting data about parish residents and is preparing a report that will be used to develop Healthy Communities programming. Of nearly 700 residents that were surveyed:

—42 percent are obese.

—48 percent have high blood pressure.

—38 percent have high cholesterol.

—16 percent have diabetes.

—10 percent have had a heart attack.

Broyles said the data will be useful in determining targets for intervention. For example, 6 percent of people who came to health screenings offered by the parish extension office had stage 2 hypertension, which is a dangerous condition, she said. One quarter of the people who had stage 1 and 2 hypertension didn't even know they had high blood pressure.

"If you flip that number, three-fourths of them knew they had high blood pressure — but even though they knew about it and maybe are taking medicine for it, they still have stage 1 or stage 2 hypertension," Broyles said.

While Broyles said educating people about how to better manage health problems is one way Healthy Communities can help, there remains a roadblock. Residents lack access to tools they need to lose weight and improve their health.

Many people in West Carroll Parish and across Louisiana cannot afford things like healthy foods, medications or gym memberships. Broyles said half of the survey respondents with diabetes reported an annual income below $20,000, while half of those without diabetes earn $50,000 or more.

West Carroll Parish also has few recreational facilities, according to Oak Grove Mayor Adam Holland. He said this is concerning because his town is a "mini-hub of northeastern Louisiana that attracts people from a few parishes."

Oak Grove has a park and walking trail that serve young and old residents, but it still needs to develop facilities and opportunities that appeal to older children and teenagers, Holland said.

AgCenter agent in West Carroll Parish Bruce Garner said one way to reach school-age children is through gardens at schools and in the community. Gardens don't take up much space and are not difficult to maintain, but they are helpful in teaching people about healthy foods, he said.

Caroline Brazeel, director of health promotion for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, told meeting attendees about the state's Well-Ahead campaign, which helps businesses and organizations encourage smarter choices when it comes to eating, exercise and tobacco use.

LaTonya Owens, regional coordinator of the Southern Ag Center, discussed the negative effects of tobacco. Owens said tobacco advertising is rampant in small towns like Oak Grove, so it is especially important for community leaders and parents there to set a good example for children.

Olivia McClure

Last Updated: 8/18/2014 2:32:06 PM

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