County Health Rankings

Colorado is, overall, one of the healthiest states in the country. But things are starting to change as the population grows and begins to age. One of the unintended side effects is a widening disparity between the healthiest and least healthy counties.  Bente Birkeland has more.

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    County Health Rankings kgnu


New data also indicates disparities across geographic regions; with people living in the mountain communities generally ranking as the healthiest in Colorado.

“The amount of sunshine, the world class skiing, hiking, fly fishing, the ability to go right outside your backyard and experience nature,” said Democratic Summit County commissioner Dan Gibbs. He said those are some of the things that attract people to move and stay here. Gibbs has lived in Summit County for more than a decade, and said he’s not surprised to learn it’s listed as one of the top ten healthiest Colorado counties.

“People really believe in healthy living. When you’re at a restaurant or bar, people are always quick to say; hey what are you going tomorrow? Or what kind of mountain bike do you have? Do you want to go hiking, fishing, or backpacking?”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation put together the 2015 health ranking. It looked a range of factors, from smoking and drinking to premature deaths and obesity rates.

Burt Hubbard, a reporter with Rocky Mountain PBS News analyzed the data for this story. “Five out of then ten healthiest were on the western slope.”

Pitkin County home to Aspen, was the healthiest in the state, followed by Douglas County, a Denver suburb, which also happens to be the wealthiest county in Colorado. Other regions didn’t far as well.

“We know that Southeastern Colorado for example has been one of the most economically depressed area in the state,” said Jeff Bontrager, the Director of Research on Coverage Access for the Denver based non-profit the Colorado Health Institute. “Also, when you look at rural areas they may not have as many resources available especially if it’s an economically depressed area.”

The least healthy of Colorado’s 64 counties include Huerfano, Conejos, Costilla, Las Animas and Rio Grande.

“When you look at where counties ranked in terms of being healthy, it aligns so closely to the pattern that we see in poverty rates in the state,” said Sarah Hughes, the Research Director for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which tracks the health of Colorado kids. She said that’s why it’s important for policy makers to take a broad look at health, everything from education to economic development.

“Just focusing on those things that we think of as being traditionally health related, like health coverage, or access to healthy foods, won’t necessarily be enough to improve the overall health of Coloradans.”

Colorado has seen some positive trends. Smoking rates are going down, and over the last decade fewer teens have been sexually active and fewer are binge drinking. Colorado is still the thinnest state in the country, but that doesn’t show the whole picture.

“Although many people perceive Colorado being the healthiest state in the country, when you take a look down at the specific data about what’s making Colorado healthy and what’s making us not healthy, there are definitely areas for us to improve,” said Kyle Legleiter, the policy director for the Colorado Health Foundation. “We have remained consistently the leanest state in the country for adults, but when we compare our adult obesity rate for this year to what it was back in 2006, our actual ranking for today would make us one of the most obese states ten years ago.”

And even the healthiest counties aren’t healthy in every area. Take binge drinking. According to the RMPBS News analysis, only 9 percent of people in Lincoln County on the eastern plains and Rio Grande County in the southwest part of the state binge drink. In Summit County that number jumps to 33 percent.

“Anecdotally we do hear from grassroots network members in the mountain communities that they do see higher rates of drinking and substance abuse in their communities,” said Hughes. [I’ve] kind of heard people attribute that to the vacation tourism atmosphere they have up there.”

Another challenge is the widening health disparity among various regions as the state’s population grows. Analysts are still trying to figure out what could be driving that movement. This legislative session state lawmakers will also be taking a closer look at how to lower the cost of health insurance. Fewer Coloradans are now covered through work, and in the mountain regions, the insurance rates are still the highest in the country.

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