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Poverty, tobacco, unhealthy eating combine to shorten lives in WNY

Half of the eight counties in Western New York – including Erie and Niagara – continue to sit in the bottom of 10 counties across the state when it comes to health outcomes.

What’s more, people across the region tend to live at least 2 1/2 years less than the typical New Yorker.

These are among the findings released Tuesday in the annual County Health Rankings report, by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

“We need to do more to prevent people from starting to smoke, and with smoking cessation,” said Dr. Thomas J. Madejski, a Western New York primary care and palliative physician, as well as president of the Medical Society of the State of New York. "We also have to pay more attention to the social determinants of health. If the economy in those counties was better, health would be better."

The 2019 rankings come from data collected from a variety of sources, mostly covering the years 2016 and 2017.

Officials see hopeful trends, no instant fixes to WNY's low health rankings

The rankings measure longevity, low birth weight, child and infant mortality, mental distress, diabetes and HIV infection rates when considering health outcomes.

Tobacco use, obesity, excessive drinking, physical inactivity, access to exercise, sexually transmitted diseases, teen births and child mortality help establish health factors.

Income inequality, children in poverty and educational status are also weighed, as well as the availability of primary care doctors and dentists, effectiveness of diabetes monitoring and mammography screenings and preventable hospital stays.

County Health outcomes (Ranking out of 62 counties)
Allegany No. 40
Cattaraugus No. 60
Chautauqua No. 59
Erie No. 56
Genesee No. 42
Niagara No. 58
Orleans No. 52
Wyoming No. 24

“The Rankings make it clear that good health is influenced by many factors beyond medical care including housing, education, jobs, access to healthy foods, and more,” the authors wrote.

Nationally, as well as across the state, counties that struggle under the weight of more child poverty, limited access to healthy foods and burdensome housing costs struggle more with health.

The wealthy suburban counties around New York City rank as the healthiest in New York State; the healthiest county in the western region is Wyoming, which ranked 24th out of 62 counties.

Compared to the national benchmarks, a lower percentage of adult state residents smoke (14 percent versus 17 percent), are obese (24 percent versus 27 percent) and have babies as teens (16 versus 25 births per 1,000 females ages 15-19).

Excessive drinking rates are higher statewide (19 percent versus 18 percent), as are reported rates of the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia (553 versus 497 per 100,000) and the percentage of children in poverty (20 percent versus 18 percent).

Lower performing counties do considerably worse than national averages – and the average health of blacks is generally worse than the overall populations of lower performing counties, the rankings showed.

All eight Western New York counties fall below the average statewide length of life, age 81.2.

Wyoming and Allegany counties have the highest longevity rates – at 78.7 and 78.5, respectively – while Cattaraugus and Niagara have the lowest, at 77.5 and 77.6.

The average life expectancy in Erie County is 78.3 years old, nearly three years less than statewide. For blacks in the county, life expectancy is 74, seven years less than the overall state average. Hispanic life expectancy in the county is 84; for whites, it’s 79 (five years longer than for blacks).

Adult smoking rates across Western New York are higher than the statewide average. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

Erie County placed 56th in health outcomes during the latest rankings – up one spot from its 57th place finish last year. It dropped one spot to 32nd, in terms of health factors.

The adult smoking rate in the county is 18 percent, four percentage points higher than the state average. The 30 percent adult obesity rate is four percentage points higher than statewide.

Both rates are better than all other counties in the region. Chautauqua and Cattaraugus have the highest smoking rates – at 24 and 23 percent, respectively – while Orleans and Cattaraugus have the highest obesity rates, at 36 and 37 percent.

The 5 percent rate of those uninsured in Erie County stands at 2 percent lower than statewide, while the number of doctors and dentists per capita, and the percentage of those who get a flu shot (47 percent) is roughly the same. The rate for preventative hospital stays is lower than the state average by about 350 per 100,000 Medicare enrollees.

Also higher than state averages are air pollution rates (10.7 percent average daily density of particulate matter versus 8.5 percent) and those who drive alone to work (81 versus 53 percent).

Phil Haberstro, executive director of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo, cited several efforts across the region aimed at improving health rankings. They include Healthiest Districts and State of Play initiatives for school-age children, a growing fitness presence and workplace wellness efforts across the region and 10 colleges and universities that now offer degrees in health-related fields.

“I believe we are at an authentic tipping point in our communities,” he said.


Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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