2012 County Health Rankings Highlight Healthiest, Least Healthy Counties in Every State

Rankings show what influences how healthy residents are, how long they live.

    • April 3, 2012

More than 3,000 counties and the District of Columbia can compare how healthy their residents are and how long they live with the 2012 County Health Rankings. The Rankings are an annual check-up that highlights the healthiest and least healthy counties in every state, based on key factors that influence health such as education rates, income levels, and access to healthy foods and medical care.

Now in their third year, the Rankings are increasingly being used by community leaders to help them identify challenges and take action in a variety of ways to improve residents’ health.

Published online at www.countyhealthrankings.org by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Rankings assess the overall health of nearly every county in all 50 states, using a standard way to measure how healthy people are and how long they live. The Rankings consider factors that affect people’s health within four categories: health behavior, clinical care, social and economic factors, and physical environment. This year’s Rankings include several new measures, such as how many fast food restaurants are in a county and levels of physical inactivity among residents. Graphs illustrating premature death trends over 10 years are new as well.

“The County Health Rankings show us that much of what influences our health happens outside of the doctor’s office. In fact, where we live, learn, work and play has a big role in determining how healthy we are and how long we live,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A., president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “The good news is that businesses, health care providers, government, consumers and community leaders are already joining forces in communities across the nation to change some of the gaps that the Rankings highlight.”

Within each state, even the healthiest counties have areas where they can improve. Healthier counties (those where people live longer and have a better quality of life) have lower rates of smoking, physical inactivity, teen births, preventable hospital stays, unemployment, children in poverty, and violent crime and higher levels of education, social support, and access to primary care physicians. But healthier counties are no more likely than unhealthy counties to have lower rates of excessive drinking or obesity or better access to healthy food options.

Across the nation, some factors that influence health, such as smoking, availability of primary care physicians, and social support, show highs and lows across all regions. Meanwhile other factors reflect some distinct regional patterns, such as:

  • Excessive drinking rates are highest in the northern states.
  • Rates of teen births, sexually transmitted infections, and children in poverty are highest across the southern states.
  • Unemployment rates are lowest in the northeastern, Midwest, and central plains states.
  • Motor vehicle crash deaths are lowest in the northeastern and upper Midwest states.

The Rankings are based on the latest publically-available data for each county and can be used by both leaders and residents to measure where their county stands on multiple factors that influence health compared to other counties in their state. Residents also can see how their county measures up on indicators like diabetes screening by comparing their county’s rank against a national benchmark reflecting the top performing counties in the United States. The website also includes a new, interactive mapping feature making the Rankings now even easier to use.

Since the first launch of the Rankings in 2010, a number of communities including Wyandotte, Kan.; Hernando, Miss., and the Joy-Southfield neighborhood in Detroit, have taken steps to address some of the health gaps identified by the Rankings.

“After three years, we’ve learned that people across the entire nation want to know how the health of their county compares to others in their state. This annual check-up helps bring county leaders together to see where they need to improve,” said Patrick Remington, MD, MPH, professor and associate dean at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “It’s really exciting to see that the Rankings continue to serve as a call to action to take steps to improve the health of communities.”

The County Health Rankings can help us learn more about what’s making people sick or healthy. New this year, the County Health Roadmaps program is helping counties to mobilize and take action to create healthier places to live, learn, work and play. A call for applications is also now open for the new Roadmaps to Health Prize that will recognize the efforts and accomplishments of communities in the U.S. working at the forefront of better health for all residents. Up to six Roadmaps to Health Prize winning communities will be honored in early 2013 and each will receive a no-strings-attached $25,000 cash prize.

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