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Placing health first

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Another spot at the top for Los Alamos

By Roger Snodgrass

Los Alamos County is the healthiest county in New Mexico, according to a comprehensive national health report released last week.

“I believe it,” said Michelangelo Lobato, coordinator for the Community Health Council. “Los Alamos is such a health-conscious place, and a lot of it relates to education,” he said. “I’m amazed at the programs here.”

The council, a program sponsored by Los Alamos Family Council is currently working on special needs for people with developmental disabilities, youth violence and crime and teen drinking and substance abuse.

Lobato cited the counseling program by Los Alamos Family Council that offers services that aren’t available in many communities, the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board and an effective truancy program, as examples of advanced social services contributing to better health outcomes.

“There are a lot of organizations and people who care about themselves and others,” Lobato said.

Research by the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranked states and counties according to a standard formula that includes factors like how long residents live and how well they feel while they are alive.

New Mexico’s 10 healthiest counties are Los Alamos, Santa Fe, Sandoval, Lincoln, Doña Ana, Otero, Bernalillo, Roosevelt, Union and Curry.

The counties found to be in the poorest health were Rio Arriba, Mora, San Miguel, McKinley, Torrance, Guadalupe, Cibola, Quay, Socorro and Sierra.

Los Alamos and Santa Fe ranked one and two in the state, according to the study, while neighboring Rio Arriba County came in at the bottom of the 32 counties. Surprisingly, a finding of the report is that it is not uncommon for the healthiest and least-healthy counties to be adjacent. The healthiest county in Pennsylvania, Chester County, is side-by side with Delaware and Philadelphia Counties, which are ranked at the bottom.

“This report shows us that there are big differences in overall health across New Mexico’s counties, due to many factors, ranging from individual behavior to quality of health care, to education and jobs, to access to healthy foods and to quality of the air,” said Patrick Remington, associate dean for public health, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “For the first time, every person can compare the overall health of the county to the health of other counties in New Mexico and also see where the state needs to improve.

That Los Alamos is a pace-setter for the state may was not so surprising to local health officials who see the county as an exceptional location.

“I was curious just to see what was in the report, but not surprised,” said Megan Pfeffer, the public health nurse.

“It does have to do with environment and accessibility,” she said. “If you have access to health care and education and a positive home life, my opinion would be that you would have more knowledge and make better decisions about health issues.”

Dr. Carolyn Linnebar of Medical Associates of North New Mexico said she thought it was an interesting paradox that there would be such a contrast between Los Alamos and a county just 20 miles away.

“People here are immunized in terms of all the recommendations,” she said.  “They’re high users. When you have an educated populace, they get screened. They have mamograms. They avail themselves of health services.”

The standardized ranking formula counted 41 measures with broad public health relevance including education, employment, incomes, tobacco and alcohol use, air quality, crime rates, premature deaths and self-reported health status.

Los Alamos came in first in health outcomes that include longevity and feeling well, along with health factors, like healthy behaviors, clinical care, positive social and economic factors and a wholesome environment.  

The county health rankings identify the healthiest and least healthy counties in every state in the nation. Though the rankings do not identify the healthiest and least healthy counties in the nation, when you compare the 50 healthiest counties (one from every state), with the 50 least healthy counties, you see some striking differences:

Population size: About half (48 percent) of the 50 healthiest counties are urban or suburban counties, whereas most (84 percent) of the 50 least healthy counties are rural.

Premature death rates: The least healthy counties have significantly higher rates of premature death ­— 2.5  times higher than the healthiest counties.

Self-reported health: People living in the least healthy counties reporting being in significantly poorer health - 2.1 times higher rates of people who report being in fair or poor health, compared with the healthiest counties.