OUR OPINION: Healthier counties start with individuals’ efforts

By NEMS Daily Journal

County health rankings newly released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute place eight Northeast Mississippi counties among the top 20 in the state, but not even the best of the best among Mississippi’s 82 met benchmarks for counties nationwide.
The Johnson/Wisconsin study, relatively new but widely followed, rates DeSoto the healthiest Mississippi County and Lafayette in second place. Alcorn, Prentiss, Tishomingo, Union, Pontotoc, Clay and Oktibbeha all were within the top 20, but none of the Northeast Mississippi counties generally achieved or surpassed national benchmarks.
The culprits knocking the quality of health down in Mississippi’s healthiest counties were smoking, obesity and lack of physical exercise, all preventable or alterable factors in poor health, morbidity, premature death and general quality of life measured by the data.
It is significant that in many of the top 20 state counties city governments and health care systems like Baptist Memorial and North Mississippi Health Services participate and help lead communitywide better-health initiatives. Many Mississippians are acutely aware of their own and our state’s health care failings because of high rates of preventable, chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension, obesity and its consequences and lack of adequate exercise.
The study factors include the prevalence of poverty in the measurement of health rankings because poverty affects the amount and kind of food people buy and the quality of health care received. It is not coincidence that a major portion of the lowest ranking counties in Mississippi also are among the poorest.
The factors also include tobacco use, principally cigarette smoking, and poor health. It is not surprising that in many Mississippi counties, even the healthiest ones, the smoking rate among adults is higher the nationwide average, which is about 17 percent, the Rankings and Roadmap data reports.
Each year approximately 443,000 premature deaths are primarily due to smoking, and cigarette smoking is, as the report identifies, “a cause in multiple diseases including various cancers, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, adverse reproductive effects, and other adverse health outcomes.”
The report also offers immediate encouragement: “Because smoking cessation can lead to immediate health benefits at any age, smoking prevalence is an important measure to include when assessing health and planning interventions at a county level.”
Stopping immediately begins accruing health benefits.
Of course, the study also factors in lack of regular exercise, whose outcomes often include obesity, type 2 diabetes and hypertension.
Most of the risk factors at work in poor-health Mississippians can be eliminated, and that mostly requires an act of individual will.