New Study Ranks Healthiness in the Nation’s 3,016 Counties

A study led by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has ranked the level of healthiness in the more than 3,000 counties that comprise the United States. Conducted with the assistance of the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute, the study entitled “County Health Rankings: Mobilizing Action Toward Community Health,” provides a snapshot of where America’s healthiest people live.

“This is a complicated story about what makes a community healthy and another not so healthy,” said report author Pat Remington, the associate dean for public health at the University of Wisconsin.  For example, researchers point to cities reputed for their top-quality medical centers – most notably Baltimore and Philadelphia — that ranked close to the bottom in their respective states.  “Social, economic and health habits may be at play there,” said James Marks, senior vice president and director of the foundation’s health group.

The researchers examined federal and state health-related data on 3,016 counties, according to Remington.  The information was analyzed by researchers who had created similar reports for the state of Wisconsin over the past six years.  Remington said   his group wanted to “bring it down to the ground level” by learning where strengths and weaknesses lie within individual counties.

Each county is examined in two ways:  “Health Outcomes” and “Health Factors.”  “Health Outcomes” look at a county’s disease and death rates.  The “Health Factors” rating is more complicated and examines such factors as obesity rates, smoking and alcohol use.  Socio-economic factors, such as unemployment, income and safety, also are considered in addition to access to healthcare and the local environmental.  “The ‘Health Outcomes’ rank is about current healthiness factors.  The ‘Health Factors’ rank is about where they are going — predictors of health,” Marks said.

Some of the results are eye-opening. The healthiest of Illinois’s 102 counties is Kendall, which is located next to LaSalle County, which ranked 65th.  LaSalle County, whose smoking rate is twice the national average, is home to twice as many people who can be considered to be in fair to poor health.  The divide between suburban and rural also comes into play here.  Kendall County is close enough to Chicago be almost be considered part of the metropolitan area, while LaSalle County is rural and home to many farms.  According to Dr. Remington, “Affluent suburbs tend to have higher-paying jobs, often in the cities, whereas rural communities often are dealing with loss of business.”  Rural populations also are in decline as younger and healthier people move away from places like LaSalle County to the cities where employment opportunities are more varied.  To improve the health of its citizens, LaSalle County health department officials are giving nicotine patches to smokers and educating school officials about obesity and diabetes.

“It’s hard to lead a healthy life if you don’t live in a healthy community,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A., president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  “The County Health Rankings are an annual check-up for communities to know how healthy they are and where they can improve.  We hope that policymakers, businesses, educators, public health departments and community residents will use the Rankings to develop solutions to help people live healthier lives.”

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