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Editorial: Erie County's poor health requires all hands on deck

At least we know where we’re starting from when it comes to the community’s health: near the bottom. The news may not light the path forward, but it shows what needs to be done and provides a baseline measurement.

Here’s the hard fact: Western New Yorkers die younger than others in the state and a lot of it our own fault: More of us smoke and more are obese than in other parts of New York. We’re not doing a good job of caring for ourselves.

Together with other factors, what that means is that, the average life expectancy of Erie County residents is almost three years less than New Yorkers generally. And here’s the sort-of-good news for Erie County: Its residents still live longer than those in other Western New York counties.

Statewide, New Yorkers’ rates of excessive drinking are higher than the national average, as are reported rates of the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia.

Other factors are at play, too, and are beyond the control of individuals. High poverty rates, including childhood poverty, affect health and life expectancy, for example.

Each can cause a cascade of health issues. Poor diet can cause obesity, for example, and obesity can lead to diabetes, which unleashes its own avalanche of expensive, life-shortening medical problems.

If it’s not a crisis, it’s a useful bucket of cold water. But that’s not bad. It’s hard to find the way ahead if you don’t know where you are. This does that.

The figures are new, but predictable. They come from the annual County Health Rankings report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The report was issued this week. Its results require an all-hands-on-deck approach.

Western New Yorkers need to commit to healthier eating, for example, but education and availability of fresh food are key to that. The same goes for smoking and drinking, even tougher nuts to crack given the insidious influence of addiction.

But things are happening. Phil Haberstro, executive director of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo, thinks the area is at a tipping point. Fitness efforts in schools and workplaces are helping. Health education at 10 area colleges and universities are also making a difference, he said.

The necessary changes can be years in making, which is why it is important to focus on early education. In the meantime, watch for changes. A good place to look is at our waistlines.

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