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February 17th, 2010
04:18 PM ET

How healthy is the county you live in?

By Miriam Falco
CNN Medical Managing Editor

WASHINGTON, D.C. (CNN) If you live in Vermont and read the paper last November, you may have gleefully seen that your state edged out Minnesota as the healthiest state in the union, according to the 2009 ranking of healthiest states by the United Health Foundation, a non-profit health advocacy group funded by the insurance giant United Healthcare.

But if you live in the upper Northeast part of the state, in Essex County, Vermont, you may not be so thrilled about a new report released today because it says you live in the unhealthiest county in your state.

On the other hand, if you live in DeSoto County, Mississippi, you live in the healthiest county of the unhealthiest state.

Americans can now go online and find out how the county they live in ranks in terms of health outcomes and health factors.

This is all part of the report that ranks the overall health of all 50 states, from healthiest to least healthy, courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. They’re calling this report, “the first annual checkup for every county in the nation.”

Pat Remington, associate dean for public health at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and lead author of this new report, says what this report does is – by summarizing the overall health of a community –allows residents to know how healthy their county is and how it compares with neighboring counties.

Researchers ranked states based health outcomes, which they describe as on how long people lived (mortality) and how well they feel while they are alive (morbidity).

They also ranked them according to health factors, such as smoking and obesity; health care access and quality; unemployment; how many children live in poverty; air pollution and how much access there is to healthy foods.

If you look at their map of the United States showing the five healthiest and unhealthiest counties in each state, it may surprise you that they are often side-by-side. For example, according to the report, Chester County is the healthiest in Pennsylvania, but neighboring Delaware and Philadelphia Counties rank 36th and last in the state.

Remington and his colleagues hope the new report will change the landscape.

“It really is a call to action, not just for public health officials” says Remington, “it’s a call for action for educators, employers, community organizers to come to the table and start working together to improve the health of an entire community.”

Remington says after Juneau County, Wisconsin, was ranked unhealthiest in the state, the first response was anger and denial – but pretty quickly, rather than acceptance, the communities got motivated to make things better. Local health officials decided to add community access to health care, so everybody could be seen by a doctor. They also opened a free dental clinic and doctors started handing out books to improve literacy. Remington says these are just some examples of how a community can come together to make things better.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Tracy

    Wow. This is a real eye opener. After checking out the map, I am stunned that the Northern Minnesota county that I live in is one of the unhealthiest in the state! I really expected to see red all over the twin cities, but they didn't even rank!

    February 17, 2010 at 19:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Dr. Baltimore

    It would be interesting to see how the rankings track with wealth in the counties. My cursory review of several states indicates wealthy counties rank high, poor counties rank low. A sign of a healthy health care system that doesn't need a fixin.

    February 17, 2010 at 20:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Margaret Mortz

    Has anyone collected the "best practices" of all the counties and states that have shown improvement?

    Also, is there a way to compare county rankings across the country? How does the worst county in Vermont compare to the best county in Washington?

    February 18, 2010 at 00:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Conoclast

    Do we even dare look at the U.S.'s international ranking on citizen health, or shall we just keep our heads in the sand?

    February 18, 2010 at 01:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Michael Ullman, Ph.D.

    Likely the unhealthiest county in Vermont is better than the healthiest county in Mississippi, Alabama Louisiana, need I say more.

    Where Native American, Blacks, low income are "unhealthy"
    and where upper-income, asians (not pacific islander) live are "healthy" – nothing new.

    Every state already had their own indicators by county believe me – sure, places like Wisconsin may react temporarily – but by the same token – healthiest counties in unhealthy states may do the opposite.

    Aren't we using western values of health? Where is the cross cultural analysis that not everything is years lived?

    February 18, 2010 at 03:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Jason

    It seems that the data correlates with poverty as the richer counties and municipalities are the most healthy. Maybe its the fact that the least healthy food in the US is also the cheapest, while healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables are getting more expensive. The best way to make a healthier US is to tax fast food for its unhealthy nature, and also make food stamps go toward much healthier food, instead of straight to junk food, and soda.

    February 18, 2010 at 05:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Guest

    I disagree that the cheapest foods are the least healthy and the most expensive foods are the most healthy. I find it really ironic that the most unhealthy counties in most states are rural counties where access to fresh fruits and vegetables is the easiest because you can grow them in your backyard or buy them at a farmstand without a grocery store mark up. There are obviously problems with education on health and nutrition in some of these rural areas because it seems likely that people are choosing low quality, low nutrition foods from the nearby Super Walmart instead of healthier local foods.

    February 19, 2010 at 09:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Elle

    What I'm not surprised by is how much income and education are factors in the ranking. If it were purely environmental issues factoring in healthy versus unhealthy, there wouldn't be healthier counties stacked right next to the unhealthiest.

    February 21, 2010 at 20:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Gabrielle Ross

    Food Stamps are nice and handy if you want some fast meals.~"~

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    Food Stamps are great and i wish that there were more of them.'."

    July 19, 2010 at 21:30 | Report abuse | Reply
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    the homeless people in our area would always use food stamps to satisfy their hunger~-:

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    food stamps are great because it is instant food and you can consider it also as free lunch -*,

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.