Johnson County has been getting less healthy over the past few years and dropping in the rankings of a nationwide study.
The county ranked as the 15th-healthiest in Indiana, according to the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s annual report, which ranks all the counties in every state. Hamilton, Hendricks and Boone counties ranked as the top three in Indiana.
Johnson County’s ranking slid for the third straight year for health outcomes, which is how long people live and how healthy they are. The county was ranked the 11th-healthiest county in Indiana in 2011 and the 13th-healthiest last year.
Researchers determine which counties are healthiest by tallying premature deaths, low birth weights and reported instances of poor physical and mental health. They also rank counties by health factors such as obesity, smoking, the number of doctors, the number of children raised by single parents, how easy it is to get to a gym and how many fast-food restaurants are in the community.
The findings are supposed to point out areas that need improvement and start conversations about healthier lifestyles, researcher Kate Konkle said.
Major areas of concern in Johnson County include high rates of obesity and smoking, Konkle said.
About 29 percent of adults in Johnson County are obese, the study found. That rate is slightly better than the state average but trails the national benchmark rate of 25 percent.
“It’s slightly lower than the average for Indiana, but it’s really way too high,” she said.
Another major challenge is the county’s high smoking rate, which has increased over last year, Konkle said. About a fourth of Johnson County residents smoke, and that’s higher than the state average.
The county repealed a tougher smoking ban that might have encouraged more people to quit, Johnson County Health Department director John Bonsett said. Also, few Johnson County government employees participated in a smoking cessation program that was recently offered, he said.
The county’s overall health factor ranking was buoyed by high education and income levels, and accessibility of clinical care, Konkle said. For example, the county has more doctors and dentists per capita than the state average.
The county has other strong points, such as a low rate of childhood poverty and a good high school graduation rate, Konkle said.
“I would say there are good factors at work,” she said. “About 65 percent of residents in the county have some college, which is lower than the national average but higher than the state average. Education and income are big drivers of good health.”
The county placed among the best in the state but should still try to improve, Bonsett said.
“We slipped a spot or two,” he said. “We strive to be better and would like to improve, but we can’t do that overnight.”
The county doesn’t have much funding for public education and can’t afford to hire a full-time health educator like the one in Hendricks County, who gives talks at schools and to community groups, he said.
“We don’t really have the staff or the manpower,” he said. “But we generally encourage people to get exercise and have good diets. Unfortunately, people don’t often change their lifestyle until something bad happens. They don’t stop smoking until they get lung cancer. The challenge is to get people to change in time to prevent problems.”
Partnership for a Healthier Johnson County has been pursuing healthy initiatives, such as smoking cessation programs, director Jane Blessing said. People who want to quit can get counseling even if they have little or no health insurance, and the program recently was expanded to include teenagers.
The group is focusing on lowering the rate of smoking in Johnson County, since one out of every four adults smokes, Blessing said.
But they’re also trying to educate people about obesity and physical inactivity, such as through an annual weight loss competition that local businesses and their employees take part in.
Partnership for a Healthier Johnson County runs the Dump the Plump wellness program and also can send out health experts to talk with businesses and community groups, she said.
Blessing said the group can use data from the recent study to identify problems, such as that not enough residents have access to healthy food.
Officials could, for instance, look at setting up a farmers market in Trafalgar, where there’s no longer a grocery store and people sometimes go to dollar stores or gas stations to buy food.
The study found Johnson County finished 10th in the state in health factors that include the rates for education, unemployment, violent crime rate and sexually transmitted diseases.
Good scores in those areas suggest that a county’s overall health will improve in the future, Konkle said.
“The health outcomes are a picture of today’s health and how long people are living,” she said. “The health factors are more a picture of tomorrow’s health, and the drivers of health in the future.”
With a 10th-place ranking, Johnson County still could look at taking a number of steps to improve the overall health of its residents, Konkle said.
Community centers could offer more fitness classes for seniors, she said. High schools could let residents use their tracks, gyms and pools after hours.
Businesses could put healthier items in their vending machines and let their employees combine breaks so they could go to the gym during their lunch hour.
Johnson County’s overall healthiness ranking has fallen by four places over the past three years, but morbidity rates have improved during that period, according to the study.
Slightly fewer people reported suffering poor to fair physical health or poor mental health.
But premature deaths in Johnson County have been climbing over the past few years.
An increase in premature deaths could be attributable in part to the large retirement communities in Johnson County, such as Greenwood Village South and the Indiana Masonic Home in Franklin, Blessing said. Those are some of the biggest retirement communities in the state and could account for the rising number of people dying before the average life expectancy, she said.
The study also found that the county lags behind the state average in a number of areas. Johnson County residents smoke more, drink alcohol more excessively and are less physically active than the rest of the state.
Johnson County also has more fast-food restaurants than other Indiana communities and more than twice as many as the national benchmark.
Blessing said the high density of fast-food restaurants was one of the biggest drags on the county’s ranking.