A long life? Not here

HOW’RE YOU FEELING? If you live in Columbia County, you probably feel a little healthier than your neighbors in, say, Ulster or Rensselaer counties. Unless you’re dead, of course.

As a matter of fact, you are likelier to be deceased sooner here than in most other counties in the state. This cheery news comes from the County Health Rankings study, part of a project of a joint effort by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The rankings compare all 62 counties in New York using two major categories, “health outcomes” and “health factors.” The health factors part of the study covers all sorts of behavior, like tobacco use, diet and exercise, unsafe sex and alcohol use; it also measures access to healthcare and the quality of that care. It compares social and economic factors, like education, unemployment, income disparity, support systems and safety. Finally, it looks at environmental factors.

When the study crunches the numbers for these health factors, this county ranks in the middle of all the counties in terms of the behavior by us, its residents; it also comes out at the mid-point for access to healthcare. By comparison, we do well on the social and economic scale, ranking in 16th overall. But surprisingly, the county ranks near the bottom–number 48–when it comes to the physical environment. Huh?

Oddest of all, when you drill down into the data, you find that the study sees a big lack here of “access to healthy foods,” making it sound like we’re just a trifle less disadvantaged than the beleaguered citizens of Port au Prince.

It’s not that the data are wrong; the problem lies in the choice of a standardized measurement for an elusive characteristic like “healthy foods.” It turns out that this factoid was derived from 2006 census data on Zip Codes having “grocery stores with more than four employees and produce/farmers’ markets.” People in this county collect their mail at over 30 Zip Codes, and many of these communities don’t have large grocery stores. But we haven’t noticed widespread malnutrition in North Chatham or Malden Bridge, for example, and with programs like Hudson Valley Fresh growing in popularity and availability, we respectfully suggest the University of Wisconsin researchers wipe the cheese off their glasses and find a better way to measure the physical environment here.

Despite these flaws in the study’s statistical conclusions, some of the study data reveal trends not easily dismissed as quirks or silly assumptions. That’s the case for the mortality measurements that show premature deaths in Columbia County are significantly higher than the norm across the state. The study uses a standard measure called “years of potential life lost,” which starts with an assumption that people in the United States are not expected to die before age 75. When a county resident dies prematurely, the age of the deceased is subtracted from 75 and that result is added to county’s total number of years of potential life lost. By this method, Columbia County ranks 58th out of all 62 counties.

In a press release that announced the new study, the county Department of Health mentioned some of the factors contributing to this dismal ranking. Among the problems identified by the department are infant mortality, adult tobacco use, lung cancer incidence and cardio-vascular disease rates, and motor vehicle deaths where alcohol is a factor, especially among young people between the ages of 16 and 21.

The health department says it has completed a community health assessment and “was already aware of the indicated areas of concern before this health ranking report was completed.” And local health officials say that the health assessment they submitted to the state health department “includes initiatives that could be implemented to address indicated areas of concern.”

The public deserves to know more about these initiatives. And when they are announced, county leaders should not just dump them in the lap of the health department to handle by itself.

We can’t blame the air or the water; this county has worse mortality figures than Brooklyn, and premature deaths here are higher than they are in Rensselaer County to our north and Dutchess County, immediately to our south.

We expect to hear that little can be done now, while the recession continues to choke off government revenues that might otherwise fund programs aimed at reducing premature deaths in the county. But this is a life-threatening crisis, and residents of this county are dying to know what their leaders plan to do about it.

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