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More Education Means Better Health, Annual County Health Rankings Confirm

By Nellie Bristol, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

April 3, 2012 -- The third annual release of county health rankings shows a decided correlation between more education and better health, researchers from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute indicated last week.

In particular, areas with the highest number of residents having attended at least one semester of college showed the fewest premature deaths and fewer reports of being in poor or fair health. Patrick Remington, associate dean for public health at the University of Wisconsin, said education levels are "a well-established risk factor for premature death" and part of the "web of causation" in determining long, healthy lifestyles both for individuals and communities. Higher incomes, lower unemployment rates and having insurance are other related factors.

The rankings rated more than 3,000 counties and the District of Columbia. They took into account the physical environment, including air quality and access to recreational facilities. They also included social and economic factors such as employment and income, along with access to and quality of medical care, as well as health behaviors such as diet and exercise and alcohol use. In addition, researchers for the first time this year included levels of physical inactivity and the number of fast food restaurants in a county. The data show how a county compares to others in its state and against a national benchmark.

Researchers hope the information will change the conversation about health from medical care to more community-based activities. "We want to get people talking about why some places are healthy and others are not," Remington said. They hope to involve a wider range of participants in community health conversations, including businesses and local leaders.

Wider involvement is needed everywhere; even relatively healthy areas have room for improvement, researchers said. "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 crimes, and higher levels of education, social support and access to primary care physicians," according to a press release on the study. "Healthier counties are no more likely than unhealthy counties to have lower rates of excessive drinking, obesity or better access to food options."

Distinct regional patterns found in the data include:

  • Higher rates of excessive drinking in the Northern states;
  • Higher rates of teen births, sexually transmitted infections and children in poverty in Southern states;
  • Lowest unemployment rates in the Northeastern, Midwest and central Plains States;
  • And fewest motor vehicle crash deaths in the Northeastern and Upper Midwest states.

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