"Fit" city, maybe, but healthy? Maybe not

March 29, 2011
photo - A popular trail with runners in Colorado Springs is in Monument Valley Park. Tuesday, March 29, 2011.  Photo by JERILEE BENNETT,  THE GAZETTE
A popular trail with runners in Colorado Springs is in Monument Valley Park. Tuesday, March 29, 2011. Photo by JERILEE BENNETT, THE GAZETTE 

Several magazines have ranked Colorado Springs as one of America’s fittest cities, but a report released today by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute puts El Paso County in the bottom half of the pack when it comes to the overall health of 57 Colorado counties.

The report, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, ranks counties throughout the U.S. by two key measures: health outcomes, which include mortality rates, and factors that influence health, including smoking and obesity rates, high school graduation rates and the number of primary care providers.

In Colorado, El Paso County ranked 28th in health outcomes and 34th in health factors. Douglas County topped the list under health outcomes, with Huerfano County coming in last. The best performer under health factors was Pitkin County, with Denver County at the bottom. Seven counties were not ranked, either because their populations were too small to provide meaningful data, or available data were insufficient.

This is the second year the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin institute have teamed up to compile a wide range of health data for almost every county in the U.S. Kate Konkel, an outreach specialist for the institute, said the idea is to encourage community leaders to “dig deeper” into the findings and determine what, if anything, needs to be addressed.

“It’s a beginning point, not an end point,” she said Tuesday. “Think of it as an annual check-up: How is your county doing relative to others in your state at this particular point in time?”

One of El Paso County’s better showings falls under the “mortality” heading, which measures the years of potential life lost for those who die before age 75. A person dying at age 25, for example, counts as 50 years of life lost. El Paso County ranked 23rd out of the 57 ranked counties in that category.

In almost every other major category, El Paso County is in the bottom half of the rankings, with the worst showing — 40th — coming under “physical environment,” a subset of health factors. Physical environment encompasses air pollution levels and residents’ access to healthy foods and recreational facilities. It’s the latter two where the county seems to fall down.

According to the report, El Paso County has 11 recreational facilities per 100,000 residents, compared with the national benchmark of 17 per 100,000. And only 44 percent of El Paso County’s zip codes have a grocery store, produce stand or farmers market that provide access to healthy foods, compared with the national benchmark of 92 percent.

Paradoxically, one of the few areas where El Paso County does better than the national benchmark is adult obesity — perhaps a factor of the area’s many outdoor recreational opportunities, which the report doesn’t consider. The national benchmark holds that no more than 25 percent of the adult population should be obese; El Paso County weighed in at 20 percent.

Dr. Bernadette Albanese, medical director for El Paso County Public Health, said the report is just one of several assessments that will be used in a new collaborative effort to identify and address high-priority health problems in the area. She expects the coalition to have a blueprint for a public health improvement plan later in the year.

“This is a very reputable group that’s done this,” Albanese said of the Wisconsin institute, “but it’s one of many, and there’s clearly overlap between this and the others that we have  For some communities that have less resources and capacity to organize data, this is a real service they’re providing. For us, it adds to our knowledge and expertise, but it’s still one piece of the pie.”

The full report, available online at www.countyhealthrankings.org, provides links that show where the statistics came from and why they were included.


Colorado’s healthiest counties, as measured by health outcomes
1. Douglas
2. Eagle
3. Pitkin
4. Boulder
5. Summit
6. Elbert
7. Broomfield
8. Larimer
9. Routt
10. Gunnison

El Paso County rankings (out of 57 counties)
Health outcomes: 28
-- Mortality: 23
-- Morbidity (includes reports of poor/fair health and mental health, and low birth weights): 33

Health factors: 34
-- Health behaviors (includes adult smoking, obesity, binge drinking, STD rates): 33
 -- Clinical care (includes no. of uninsured adults, primary care providers, diabetic screenings): 32
 -- Social and economic factors (includes children in poverty and high school graduation rates): 34
 -- Physical environment (includes air-pollution levels): 40


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