There are few things more important than the health of our families, friends and neighbors. Yet across our State today, public health challenges are driving down the quality of life of South Carolinians. Now is the time to refocus our public health priorities to tackle them. As the state’s flagship institution, the University of South Carolina has identified the top health challenges facing South Carolina in 2023 — from brain health to stroke to access in rural and underserved communities — and the paths to overcome them.
South Carolinians suffer heavily from brain-related health issues, especially stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Positioned directly in the “Stroke Belt,” a region in the Southeastern U.S. known for a high incidence of stroke and cardiovascular disease, South Carolina has the ninth-highest stroke death rate in the country and close to 17,000 of our state’s residents were hospitalized for stroke in 2020.
Nearly a quarter of all stroke survivors are diagnosed with aphasia, the loss of ability to understand or express speech due to brain damage. At the Center for the Study of Aphasia Recovery, or C-STAR, a team led by USC researchers works to improve the effectiveness of aphasia treatment through innovative approaches. C-STAR researchers have made advances in understanding the connection between brain age (not directly tied to chronological age) and recovery from stroke-related conditions like aphasia. For the thousands of South Carolinians who brave the long road to stroke recovery, these findings can be the distinguishing factor.
Stroke victims can also develop vascular dementia, a condition in which a person experiences problems with reasoning, judgment, memory and other cognitive functions caused by damage to the brain from impaired blood flow. Today, dementia and other related diseases affect thousands of South Carolinians, including 95,000 who live with Alzheimer’s disease, a number expected to rise as the state’s over-65 population reaches an estimated 1.1 million by 2030. For decades, USC has played a critical role in researching Alzheimer’s Disease and other related dementias. Since 1988, the USC Office for the Study of Aging has worked with other state agencies to operate the South Carolina Alzheimer’s Disease Registry – the most comprehensive registry in the nation. This registry works to learn more about these diseases and provide guidance on preparing the state for its rapidly aging population.
To ensure that residents throughout the Palmetto State have access to world-class brain care, USC is establishing the Rural Brain Health Network, a statewide network of rural clinics to provide diagnostic assessments and health care support for patients needing dementia and brain health care. The planned clinics in Beaufort, Orangeburg, Seneca, Sumter and elsewhere will be supported by a state-of-the-art USC Brain Health Center in Columbia, which will be equipped with the powerful 7-Tesla MRI scanner – one of just a few in the country. This combination of accessibility paired with cutting-edge diagnostic equipment and support services in the Rural Brain Health Network will bring effective and cost-efficient health care to South Carolinians who need it most.
Properly addressing any health issue in South Carolina requires a reckoning with the gap in access to health care in rural and underserved communities. Factors such as poverty, limited insurance coverage and access to quality health care have led to lower health outcomes in these populations — an issue only worsening. Impoverished rural areas have drastically lower life expectancies, and thousands of women are living in maternity care deserts.
Improving access to health services in rural and underserved communities requires a multifaceted approach, and we must also replenish the depleted health care workforce. USC has been working hard to address the national nursing shortage. Each year, approximately 800 new nursing degrees are awarded within the USC system — many from USC’s online master’s nursing program which is ranked as the best in the nation. The School of Medicine in Columbia also ranks first in the nation for the number of physician graduates who practice in underserved areas. Furthermore, USC has recently joined efforts with state health leaders like Prisma Health and Lexington Medical Center to attract and retain a robust nursing workforce.
Simply put, we’ve got a lot of work to do to make South Carolinians healthier. And we cannot do it alone — it will take all of us, working together, to ensure equitable access to health care for every resident in every zip code across South Carolina. Let’s get to work.
Julius Fridriksson, USC vice president for research, has for years been a prominent member of the USC research community. He has served as a faculty member in the Arnold School of Public Health since 2001, and as SmartState Endowed Chair of Memory and Brain Function since 2016. He also directs the NIH Center for the Study of Aphasia Recovery and co-directs the cutting-edge USC McCausland Center for Brain Imaging.