State’s health is above U.S. average

Even Washington's worst counties not far behind



SEATTLE — A new report ranking the relative healthiness of Washington communities makes some places in the state look better than others, but a researcher for the report being released today says that no matter which county you live in, you’re probably healthier than residents of many other states.

“Overall, it seems like Washington … has created a really incredible culture of health,” said Angela Russell, an associate researcher at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Washington’s healthiest counties are consistently better than the national average on measurements like smoking, teen births and premature death. But even the Washington counties ranked lowest in the County Health Rankings study from the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation aren’t far behind.

Whatcom, ranked the sixth-healthiest county in Washington, is better than 90 percent of the nation on premature death, low-birthweight babies, adult obesity and other factors.

Yakima County, No. 30 of 39 counties, still does better than 90 percent of the nation in mammograms and diabetic screening — and isn’t far behind in low-birthweight babies and adult smoking.

Even in areas where Yakima falls far short of that top 10 percent, Russell said, the county has numbers some states would envy.

According to the report, the five healthiest counties in Washington are San Juan, Kittitas, Whitman, Island and King. The five counties in poorest health are Ferry, Wahkiakum, Okanogan, Asotin and Mason.

The two strongest predictors of county heath are economics and education — how many residents graduated from high school and went to college.

Russell is quick to point out that the rankings are not what this report is really about. The intent is to point out opportunities for improvement.

Every county has areas in which people could improve their health, and many are within the control of the community, Russell said.

King County has a relatively high number for excessive drinking — 18 percent of King County residents report drinking more than four or five drinks on a single occasion in the past 30 days. Among the healthiest 10 percent of the nation, this is a problem for only 8 percent of the population.

Washington Health Secretary Mary Selecky said she’s not surprised that Washington statistics show the state’s citizens are doing pretty well across the state, because the statistics the report uses mostly come from her agency.

But Selecky cautions Washington residents not to sit back and enjoy their success. “We’ve still got our work cut out for us,” she said, and she meant it.

Numbers can be deceptive, Selecky said, pointing out that death rates for heart disease and cancer are declining and the state’s obesity rate is lower than the national average.

But, she adds, obesity rates are increasing and those numbers have grown dramatically. Just 10 percent of Washington residents were obese in 1990; 26 percent were obese in 2010.

“We’ve got to have folks paying attention to what they eat and moving around more,” Selecky said.

She would also like to see more people quit smoking, get their cholesterol and blood pressure checked and talk to their doctor about taking a baby aspirin every day to keep their blood flowing.

Of course, she wouldn’t complain if people also started eating a healthy breakfast, school lunches got healthier, people started taking the stairs, and they took advantage of preventative medical care.