By Derek Liebig
County residents smoke more, weigh more and have limited access to exercise and medical care in Washington County, which a study ranks in the lower third among all 62 counties in New York.
Those are the findings of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings.
The rankings, a collaboration between the foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, measure the health of nearly every county in the nation. The rankings examine both health factor and health outcomes.
Washington County’s ranking of 46th represented a drop of 10 spots from a year ago and is its lowest in the six years the rankings have been compiled.
One of the biggest factors contributing to the county’s ranking is the behaviors of its residents. Washington County was ranked 49th for health behaviors.
According to the data, county residents smoke at a rate 48 percent higher than the state average. While only 17 percent of state residents smoke, that figure jumps to 28 percent in Washington County.
The percentage of people who are obese (defined as those with a BMI of at least 30) also exceeds the state average and is on the rise.
In 2010, 27 percent of residents were considered obese. That number has since climbed to 29 percent of the local population.
According to the rankings a contributing factor to obesity is access to exercise opportunities. Only 64 percent of county residents have adequate access to locations for physical activity, the findings say.
Social and economic factors may be contributing to residents’ health behaviors. While the percentage of local high school graduates is similar to the state average (77 percent vs. 78 percent) the percentage of residents who have completed college (45.8 percent) is significantly lower than the state average (65.7 percent).
The National Bureau of Economic Research says an additional four years of education reduces the risk of heart disease by 2.16 percent and the risk of diabetes by 1.3 percent.
There is also a correlation between education and smoking. Studies have shown that people with a college education are much less likely to smoke.
Hampton Supervisor Dave O’Brien, who serves on the county’s public safety committee and previously served on its health and human services committee, said the county looks at the rankings to identify public health initiatives.
“Public Health will look at the areas and try to put education together to help residents take better care of themselves,” O’Brien said.
He said the county offers tobacco education resources and does a lot of nutrition outreach, especially with children.
The Office of Aging has also programs targeting the county’s senior citizens, including a Meals on Wheels program.
Access to health care was also a big factor. Washington County was ranked 43rd in measures of clinical care.
While the percentage of uninsured residents (11 percent) continues to decline, partly due to federal requirements mandating health insurance, the ratio of care providers to residents remains low. There is only one physician for every 2,700 residents and one dentist for every 4,500 residents.
That figure, however, may be misleading when you consider Washington County’s proximity to care providers and hospitals in Warren County and Rutland County, Vt.
O’Brien said that many health care providers tend to be located near hospitals in more densely populated areas.
Also for some local residents, doctors in Warren County or Rutland County are located shorter distances away.
Not all of the news, however, was bad.
According to the rankings, the county’s physical environment contributes favorably to the health of residents and was rated 15th in the state. The rates of violent crime, excessive drinking and sexually transmitted infections were all below the state average. Local residents also have adequate access to healthy foods.
Saratoga County was ranked the third healthiest state county in the state; Warren County the 16th, Rensselaer County 30th and Essex County 27th.
To read the full report, visit www.countyhealthrankings.org.