Is York County the Peninsula's healthiest county? Out of 131 Virginia communities ranked on a report card of local health, three in the region ranked in the top 10: York County (5), James City County (7) and Mathews (10); Hampton came in the middle of the pack at 66 and Newport News trailed at 80. Isle of Wight and Gloucester scored 43 and 48 respectively. (Williamsburg took the number 111 spot, but its results were based on incomplete data.)
"Where you live matters," says Patrick Remington, director of the 2012 County Health Rankings & Roadmaps released Tuesday. "Health is affected by much more than what happens in the doctor's office. We're changing the focus from treatment and sick care to how to promote health in schools and communities."
The rankings measure two main health outcomes: mortality (how long people live); and morbidity (how healthy people feel). Measures include premature death, smoking and obesity rates, access to healthy foods and health care, activity levels, and socio-economic factors, such as education and poverty levels.
So how much healthier is York than Newport News, James City County than Hampton? Where do the differences lie? What can be changed?
Part of the discrepancy in rankings locally is attributable to socio-economic factors, which carry the most weight at 40 percent, compared to health behaviors (30 percent), quality of clinical care (20 percent), and the physical environment (10 percent). Two of the three top-scoring counties locally —York and James City — have the highest education levels in the region.
Remington is quick to note that though there's a correlation between education, wealth and health, it doesn't have to be the defining difference. He cites the border counties of Texas as an example of where close-knit families and social support compensate for lack of resources for good health outcomes and longevity.
Noticeable traits shared by both the healthiest and unhealthiest communities, he adds, are high obesity rates, high rates of inactivity, poor access to healthy foods and excessive drinking. This holds true both nationally and locally. "There's always room for improvement," he says.
In the region, the rankings reveal that there's also an overabundance of fast-food restaurants and generally elevated STD rates; on the plus side, the population is well screened across the board for mammography and diabetes.
"There are differences and there are things that can be done," says Remington, emphasizing the rankings' purpose as a jumping-off point for action. "It starts the conversation — the healthiest community in Mississippi can still improve by national standards." This year the rankings instituted a "roadmap" for action to promote policy changes and create healthier communities.
Here are some highlights (and lowlights) from local communities:
• In relatively healthy York County, the adult obesity rate is still 28 percent, in line with the state's rate but a few percentage points above the national average of 25 percent. Residents have good access to primary care physicians and recreational facilities.
• In Hampton, the adult obesity rate is a whopping 37 percent; the incidence of STDs is triple the national rate; and both teen births and low birth-weight babies are above the state and national benchmarks. It also suffers from poor access to primary care physicians, and a higher-than-state-average unemployment rate. Forty percent of children live in single-parent households, with a correspondingly high poverty rate of 20 percent.
• Newport News ranked particularly poor in "health behaviors," with a teen birth rate double the state's and an STD rate four times higher. Thirty four percent of adults are obese and 42 percent of children live in single-parent homes with a poverty rate of 23 percent. It also scored poorly on a mental health marker. Though its mortality rate is at the midpoint for the state, the city scored low for morbidity.
• James City County has slightly lower smoking and drinking rates, fewer STDs and a lower teen birth rate; it also has good access to recreational facilities and primary care doctors.
• Mathews County has one of the highest numbers of high school graduates in the region; it also enjoys a low crime rate and good access to doctors.
To accompany the release of the rankings, Chip Johnson, mayor of Hernando, the top-scoring county in Mississippi, shared these successful policy initiatives for creating "a culture of health":
• Removing vending machines from all government offices;
• Mandating sidewalks for all new construction;
• "Whole-street" planning to allow for pedestrians and bikes on new roads;
• Instituting a wellness program for employees to reduce health insurance premiums and allow for pay raises;
• Partnering with schools to open gyms to the public;
• Giving low-income population access to farmers' markets;
• Asking banks with repossessed land to donate for a named park;
• Forbidding smoking during work hours.
How does your community rank?
Go to http://www.countyhealthrankings.org for the full report. The site also gives information on the "Roadmaps to Health," six prizes of $25,000, to be awarded to communities in early 2013
Even healthy Virginia communities have high rates of obesity, inactivity and excessive drinking
York, James City and Mathews counties rank in top 10 for health
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