Health Rankings Highlight Healthiest and Least Healthy Counties

Factors such as education, jobs, income, and the environment play a critical role in how healthy you are and how long you can expect to live, a set of reports from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation finds.

Based on the latest county-level data available, County Health Rankings is designed to help public health advocates, community leaders, policy makers, and others assess how healthy residents of their counties are, compare those findings with other counties in their respective states, and identify ways to improve the health of their communities. Researchers used five measures to assess the overall health or "health outcomes" by county: the rate of people dying before age 75; the percentage of people who reported being in fair or poor health; the number of days in poor mental health; and the rate of low-birth-weight infants. They then looked at factors that affect people's health within four categories: health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors, and physical environment.

Now in its second year, the Rankings identified patterns of strengths and weakness within each county and found areas where all counties, even the healthiest, can improve. Among other things, the Rankings found that unhealthy counties have significantly lower high school graduation rates, have more than twice as many children in poverty, have much fewer grocery stores or farmers' markets, and have much higher rates of unemployment. It also found that people are nearly twice as likely to be in fair or poor health in the unhealthiest counties.

In response to the findings, several communities have begun to take action from passing smoke-free laws, to boosting educational opportunities for young children, to pushing for healthier grocery stores and farmers' markets. For example, after Joe Reardon, the mayor of Wyandotte County in Kansas, saw his state's low ranking in the report, he worked with other local stakeholders to launch a Healthy Communities initiative to address the social and economic factors that influence local residents' health.

"It's hard to lead a healthy life if you don't live in a healthy community," said Robert Wood Johnson Foundation president and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey. "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 policy makers, businesses, educators, public health departments, and community residents will use the Rankings to develop solutions to help people live healthier lives."

"Annual Health Check-Up Highlights Healthiest and Least Healthy Counties In Every State." Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Press Release 03/30/2011.