Merced County health ranking ticks up

Californians seem to be improving their overall health – placing No. 17 out of 50 states, four spots better than last year, in the latest America’s Health Rankings report by the United Health Foundation.

The healthiest state is Hawaii, the report said. Mississippi ranked 50th, becoming the unhealthiest state this year.

In county rankings, Merced County ranked No. 37 out of 57 counties in California studied, a two-spot improvement from last year. Marin County ranked No. 1 as the healthiest county. Lake County ranked No. 57. Alpine County was not included, due to a lack of data.

The report reveals that California’s biggest health challenges are high levels of air pollution, a moderate violent crime rate and a large disparity in health status by education level. The state’s strengths include low levels of smoking, physical inactivity and obesity.

California’s strengths, however, are not necessarily reflected locally. Merced County does have a lower prevalence of adult smoking, with 12 percent of the population reporting they smoke compared to the state’s 13 percent. But in other areas, such as obesity, the county rockets above the state. Thirty-one percent of Merced’s adult population is obese, compared to the state’s 23 percent average. Merced also has a slightly higher physical inactivity rate at 19 percent compared to the state’s 18 percent.

Dr. Jim Korkos, a market medical director at United Healthcare, oversees the data for the Northern California region. He explained that obesity and physical inactivity are two of the main reasons why Merced County ranks in the lower half.

“Merced’s obesity rate doesn’t bode well,” Korkos said. “But we also see this all across the U.S.”

Nationwide, obesity has more than doubled since the report’s inaugural year, from 11.6 percent of adults in 1990 to 29.4 percent of adults today. Korkos pointed out that 23 percent of Americans reported not having engaged in any physical activity in a 30-day period. “That is pretty shocking,” he said.

Some of it, he said, may have to do with the fact that people do not feel they have access to safe exercise locations and opportunities.

In Merced, for example, only 57 percent of adults feel they have adequate access to locations for physical activity, according to the report. But increasing this access has been a target point for local health-improvement groups in recent years.

Claudia Corchado, program manager at Merced County’s Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program, said the group has been working on opening school facilities after hours and offering opportunities for families to engage in physical activity. Currently, Farmdale Elementary in south Merced, Cesar Chavez Middle School in Planada and Le Grand High School open school grounds to the community.

But residents’ willingness to go outside and exercise also depends on how safe they feel outdoors, Corchado said. “Sadly, people have to really think about taking even a short walk outside because they don’t feel safe,” Corchado said. “In some communities, if you have the wrong color shirt on, you may be in trouble – that’s why people choose to stay indoors.”

According to the report, Merced also has a very high incidence of teen births, violent crimes, and injuries and deaths related to motor vehicle incidents.

Korkos said another problem unique to Central Valley counties is the patient-to-physician ratio. In the state, 1,326 patients to one primary care physician is about average. In Merced County this ratio jumps up to 2,280 patients per doctor.

Data for the health rankings are collected from sources including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, the U.S. Department of Education and the Census Bureau.