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Editorial: Community effort needed to improve local health

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A recent nationwide health assessment offered some good news and not-so-good news for Johnson County residents.

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. But the county has been getting less healthy over the past few years.

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.

For the record, Hamilton, Hendricks and Boone counties ranked as the top three in Indiana.

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 county’s overall health factor ranking was buoyed by high education and income levels and accessibility of clinical care, researcher Kate 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.

The findings are supposed to point out areas that need improvement and start conversations about healthier lifestyles. Major areas of concern in Johnson County include high rates of obesity and smoking.

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. About a fourth of Johnson County residents smoke, and that’s higher than the state average.

So we know where we fall down healthwise. The question then becomes what we can do it about it.

A first solid step would be to revisit the countywide smoking ordinance. By enacting a smoking ban to cover all workplaces, including bars and taverns, there would be greater incentive for people to quit. More importantly, it would ensure that all employees can be confident of working in a smoke-free environment.

Partnership for a Healthier Johnson County has been in the forefront of local efforts to reduce both the smoking and obesity rates and in other health-related areas. Smoking cessation classes and Dump the Plump campaigns are offered regularly, and participants clearly are the better for these efforts. The communitywide effort also helps promote healthy pregnancies to reduce the rate of low-birth-weight babies.

But businesses, schools and local governments can be involved, too. They could institute systems that encourage employees to take part in fitness activities. These could take the form of teams entering walks and races or weight-loss programs or partial support for membership fees in gyms or recreation centers. They also could offer modest rewards for enrolling in health programs or for losing weight.

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.

The assessment offers a portrait of today’s health and how long people are living as well as a picture of tomorrow’s health and the drivers of health in the future. With renewed effort, we can reverse the downward trend among Indiana counties and make Johnson County an even better place to live.

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