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Health study finds Erie, Niagara ailing Two counties rank near the bottom in state in terms of physical fitness and longevity

Here's a bit of motivation to get you out exercising after the long winter: Erie and Niagara counties are among the least healthy counties in New York State.

Among the 62 counties in New York, Erie and Niagara rank near the bottom when it comes to how healthy people are and how long they will live, according to a new national study being released today.

Erie County ranked No. 56; Niagara County ranked No. 57.

Cattaraugus, Chautauqua and Allegany counties didn't fair much better.

Cattaraugus came in at No. 54; Allegany, No. 49; and Chautauqua, No. 46.

"It's an annual community health checkup," said Angela Russell, an associate researcher on the study.

The rankings were funded through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and conducted by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute to provide a snapshot of a county's overall health.

"Overall, the rankings tell us where we live, work and play matters to our overall health," Russell said, "and much of what influences our health happens outside the doctor's office."

The project -- which is in its second year -- used available data to try to standardize how counties in each state measure up to each other healthwise.

Researchers developed an overall health score by using five measures: the rate of people dying before age 75; the percentage of people who reported being in fair or poor health; the number of days people reported being in poor physical health; the number of days people reported being in poor mental health; and the rate of low birth-weight infants.

In a more promising sign, Wyoming County ranked No. 12; Genesee County, No. 21; and Orleans, No. 24. Putnam County ranked No. 1.

While the other four Western New York counties ranked among the bottom third in the state, the study doesn't offer clear answers to why.

The study does provide clues by looking at other health factors, including health behavior, such as smoking and drinking, and clinical care, such as diabetic and mammography screening.

Erie County, for example, scored well when it came to those two categories.

But Erie County didn't score as well when it came to two other areas -- physical environment, such as access to recreational facilities and healthy foods, and social and economic factors, like poverty and unemployment.

"It really does speak to economic development and job creation, which you would think has nothing to do with public health," said Erie County Health Commissioner Anthony J. Billittier IV, "but it does."

The rankings raise questions about what's going on in Western New York, and what health care leaders can do to improve the socioeconomic and environmental factors, said Ann F. Monroe, the president of the Community Health Foundation of Western and Central New York.

"We haven't focused as much on those things as we have on clinical care," Monroe said. "I think we can do something, but we have to approach it differently."

Billittier wasn't surprised by Erie County's No. 56 ranking -- the county came in at No. 55 last year -- but said he's always a bit suspicious of these type of rankings.

"I think it boils down to five things," Billittier said, "eat right; exercise; don't smoke; get a doctor; and don't engage in risky behaviors."

The full report can be found at www.countyhealthrankings.org.

"We use these rankings to get people's attention and inform community leaders about those things they can change to help improve the health of a community," Russell said. "We see them as a call to action."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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