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Map Ranks States' Health County-by-County

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media, March 31, 2011

The first national ranking of its kind has found a link between counties with good health factors, such as low unemployment and cleaner air, and counties with low early mortality and disease.

The report suggests that perhaps wellbeing depends on factors such as the environment, education, jobs, income, and access to healthy food.

That's according to the county-by-county health comparison maps released by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The clickable maps allow anyone to see how any of 3,000 counties in the country measures up with other counties within that state on the basis of two ways of measuring health.

The first, called health outcomes, measures years of life lost before age 75 (premature death) in that county, and the percentage reporting poor health, the percentage of days one felt physically or mentally unhealthy.

The second, called health factors, measures lifestyle issues such as diet and exercise levels, alcohol use, percentage of respondents who reported engaging in unsafe sex, and smoking. Also measured in health factors are social and economic indicators such as education, employment and income, levels of particulates and ozone in the air, and access to healthy food and recreational activities.

"While you won’t always see the same county as the healthiest (or unhealthiest) in both health outcomes and health factors, there is usually a high level of correlation if you look within quadrants," notes Julie Willems Van Dijk, Associate Scientist, University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.   

There are several reasons why differences may be seen in health outcomes and health factors, she explained. However, "since health factors drive health outcomes, today's health outcomes are a reflection of past health factors. Therefore if health factors are worse than health outcomes, it could be a predictor that (these counties) will not fare so well in the future," she said. "Likewise, if health factors are better than health outcomes, it could provide hope to a community that it is on the right path and that future health outcomes will improve."

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