Blair making strides at becoming healthier

In 2010, when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin published their first county health rankings, they ranked Blair County 63rd of 67 Pennsylvania counties for “health outcomes” — their broadest survey category.

The next year, Blair jumped to 56th for health outcomes, which reflect length of lives and life quality.

Since then, the county has improved every year, including this year, when it rose to 45th, two places better than last year.

“Good news,” said Coleen Heim, director of the Healthy Blair County Coalition.

Blair County is still only one-third of the way from the bottom, however.

Centre County, by contrast, is in second place this year in health outcomes.

Centre’s position near the top contrasts with Cambria County’s place near the bottom, at 64th.

The other counties in the Mirror coverage area are in middling positions: Bedford County, 24th; Huntingdon County, 30th; and Clearfield County, 36th.

The rankings overall — nearly all the counties in the U.S. are represented — show that “where we live matters to health,” states the introduction to the report.

The survey shows serious gaps in the state of health of populations from county to county, gaps that result largely from “differences in opportunities,” the introduction states.

Among factors that account for those differences are high-quality schools, good paying jobs, access to healthy foods and quality health care, and affordable housing in safe environments.

Across the U.S., people who live in the bottom performing counties endure higher rates of unemployment, lower rates of high school graduation and lower median household incomes, states the report.

For five of the local counties, length of life and quality of life — the two constituents of health outcome results — were similar.

Not so for Bedford County, which ranked sixth in quality but 50th in length of life.

While health outcomes is the primary metric of the survey, the survey also ranks counties in “health factors,” which reflect “opportunities for residents to be healthy in the future.”

Blair County’s ranking for health factors bodes well for the future: it’s 32nd in Pennsylvania, 13 places better than its ranking for health outcomes.

At 59th for health factors, Cambria County is five spots better than it is for health outcomes, while Bedford, in 24th place, is in the same position as it is for health outcomes.

The other local counties rank worse in health factors than for health outcomes: Centre by three places at fifth; Huntingdon at 47th; and Clearfield at 48th.

The heath factor rankings are a composite of health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors and physical environment rankings.

The rankings in those categories are middling for four of the local counties.

Centre, however, ranks high in health behaviors at ninth and for social and economic factors at fourth.

By contrast, Clearfield ranks low — 56th and 61st respectively — in those categories.

All six local counties are rated deficient in two important sub-subcategories: adult smoking and adult obesity.

For each county, the percentage of adult smokers is between 15 and 18 percent — compared with the top U.S. performers at 14 percent.

In five of the counties, the percentage of obese adults is between 29 and 32 percent — with Clearfield at 39 percent.

That compares to the national top performers at 26 percent.

Unsurprisingly, Cambria County has the highest number of problem categories among the local counties.

There are six such areas, in addition to smoking and obesity: alcohol-impaired driving deaths, preventable hospital stays, percentage of mammogram screenings, unemployment, children in poverty and injury deaths.

By contrast, Centre County has the highest number of subcategories labeled “areas of strength.”

There are 12 of those, and they reflect a high level of physical activity, low teen births, few uninsured people, plenty of primary care doctors, a high percentage of mammograms, a high percentage of high school graduates, a high percentage of those who attended college, low unemployment, few children in poverty, few children with single parents, few infant deaths and few commuters driving alone to work.

It’s not an accident that Blair County is improving, as Heim’s Healthy Blair County Coalition has nine work groups focusing on initiatives designed to improve Blair’s population health — particularly in the “high-priority” areas of smoking and obesity, according to Heim.

The work groups include “Let’s Move, Blair County,” which sponsors a variety of activities, including a Day at the Curve set for May 6; and the “Tobacco-Free Work Group,” which has allied itself with the Lung Disease Center of Central Pennsylvania to set up smoking cessation programs at area businesses and hospitals and to plan a Healthy Resolutions Expo in November, Heim said.

Heim’s coalition has also worked with South Hills Business School on an brochure to promote active living and an interactive map that will show walking trails, state parks, tennis courts and other facilities that help people get and stay in shape, Heim said.

The coalition is also planning a faith-based networking session to encourage churches and synagogues to help their congregations get healthy and stay that way, she said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.