— Minnesota is so healthy that even the counties that aren’t ... are.
That could be one of the takeaways from an annual study ranking health outcomes in counties nationwide.
“Minnesota is one of the healthiest states in the union, so even if you’re in the lower-fourth quartile, you’re still high compared to much of the rest of the nation,” said Rich Collins, public health and human services director for Watonwan County, which ranked 68th among the state’s 85 counties.
The 2012 rankings, prepared by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, measure how healthy people are and how long they live.
The rankings are designed to compare the health of counties within each state and do not compare one state’s counties with those in other states.
In Minnesota, Steele County placed first in this year’s rankings while Cass County in northern Minnesota ranked last.
In addition to Watonwan, rankings of Mankato-area counties included Le Sueur (9th), Nicollet (18th), Sibley (19th), Waseca (24th), Blue Earth (29th), Faribault (65th) and Cottonwood (76th).
The rankings relate to health outcomes, which include the rate of people dying before age 75, the percentage of people who report being in fair or poor health, and the rate of low birth-weight infants.
Public health officials say the rankings can be a helpful tool to gauge where improvements can be made but cautioned against reading too much into their numerical designations.
They said health differences between counties are often relatively negligible, and a few percentage points difference in the ranking criteria can drop a county’s numerical ranking significantly.
Blue Earth County Public Health Supervisor Kelley Haeder stressed that a county population’s health isn’t only in the hands of its health-care network.
“We have phenomenal medical providers in Blue Earth County, but much of what affects our health occurs outside the doctor’s office,” she said.
Indeed, counties with lower health rankings tend to have comparatively low-ranking social and economic factors that drive health-outcome numbers.
Lower-ranking counties tend to skew more toward blue-collar jobs and high incidences of poverty and single-parent households. Smoking rates, obesity, excessive alcohol consumption and the number of teenage births also contribute to lower rankings.
By contrast, healthier counties tend to be whiter and better-educated, which portends healthier diets and living environments, and better access to health care.
This year’s rankings also include several new measures, such as a county’s number of fast-food outlets and levels of physical inactivity among residents.
The 2012 rankings also singled out some distinct U.S. regional patterns that affect health outcomes:
nExcessive drinking rates are highest in northern states.
nTeen birth rates, sexually transmitted infections and children in poverty are highest in southern states.
nUnemployment rates are lowest in the northeastern, Midwest and central plains states.
nMotor vehicle crash deaths are lowest in the northeastern and Upper Midwest states.