stethoscope-heartNew rankings released on Wednesday give a snapshot of the best and worst trends in health and mortality among the nation’s counties – with about 60 percent of the nation’s localities showing a decrease in preventable deaths.

Now in its sixth year, the County Health Rankings show that healthier counties in each state have higher college attendance, fewer preventable hospital stays, and better access to parks and gyms. The least healthy counties have more smokers, teen births and alcohol-related car crash deaths.

The report, produced by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute with financing from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, also looks at income distribution and its links with health.

The local-level data for 3,061 of 3,143 counties, or county equivalents, allows each state to see how its counties compare on 30 factors including education, housing, violent crime and jobs. It considers behaviors such as smoking, drinking, diet and exercise, as well as the density of fast-food restaurants in a county.

Report writers said premature death among people younger than 75 was the single most important health outcome measured, and it was given the most weight in the ranking calculation. Among the nation’s largest counties, the District of Columbia has seen the greatest improvement since the 2010 Rankings, followed by Madison County, Mississippi, and Pinal County, Arizona.

Bridget Catlin, the study’s lead author and co-director of the Population Health Institute’s County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program, said the decrease in premature deaths among 60 percent of counties is encouraging.

“But the other side is that 40 percent [of counties] are not seeing declines,” she said. “This is about getting people to go to the rankings and seeing what’s going on in their own community. … This is not just the responsibility of the local health department or the local hospital, but it’s everyone in the community who can make a difference.”

The rankings are part of the Roadmaps program that also provides 11 local health coaches across the country who offer free consultations to groups or individuals who want to take action in their own towns and involve other partners, such as business and education leaders. The group’s website features examples and programs that have used the rankings data to work on specific issues or to create their own local rankings.

The report doesn’t make comparisons or rank nationally, so that counties in one part of the country cannot use the data to fairly gauge how they are doing against another area. Other groups such as America’s Health Rankings, which issued its 25th annual ranking report in December, make comparisons by on a state-by-state basis.

“We use the rankings to serve as a call to action to improve health across the nation,” Catlin said. “We think it’s more helpful for a community to be compared to others within the same state and under the same social and environmental conditions. … Just like politics is local, health is local as well.”

Some regional and national trends from the report, include:

  • With one in four children living in poverty, U.S. child poverty rates are more than twice as high in the unhealthiest counties in each state than in the healthiest counties.
  • Violent crime rates, which affect health, well-being, and stress levels, are highest in the Southwest, Southeast and Mississippi Delta Regions.
  • Unemployment rates are 1.5 times higher in the least healthy counties in each state as they are in the healthiest counties. During the recession, counties in the West, Southeast and rust belt region were hit hardest by growing unemployment.