Utah drops to 5th healthiest state, but has lowest numbers for cancer deaths, excessive drinking

Stock image | St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The United Health Foundation ranks Utah as 2018’s fifth healthiest state in the U.S., leading the nation with the lowest numbers of excessive drinking, smoking, diabetes and cancer death rates.

Last year, Utah was ranked fourth healthiest state.

The foundation’s annual “America’s Health Rankings” report is based on five categories: Behaviors, community and environment, policy, clinical care and outcomes.

Rankings are determined by measuring data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, subtracting the U.S. value from the state value and dividing it by the standard deviation of all the state values.

The states are then ranked from highest to lowest score, according to the report.

The highest ranked state was Hawaii, which did well overall except for excessive drinking, salmonella and Tdap immunization rates. The lowest ranked state was Louisiana, which came in dead last in four of the five categories; it ranked 33rd in policy.

Utah ranked first for behaviors, fifth for outcomes, sixth for clinical care, 11th for community and environment, and 37th for policy. The state also ranks second for senior health and sixth for women and children’s health.

Utah has the lowest numbers in the country for excessive alcohol consumption and smoking. This, along with ranking fifth for physical activity, 27th for high school graduation rates and fourth for low numbers of obese adults, contribute to the state ranking first in terms of healthy behaviors.

A map shows how states ranked overall in the United Health Foundation’s health rankings report | Image courtesy of United Health Foundation, St. George News

“Culturally, Utah has a lower rate of alcohol consumption, and consequently excessive drinking. It’s one of the many cultural aspects of living in Utah that favors good health,” David Blodgett, director of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department said.

Utah did not do well, however, when it comes to drug-related deaths, coming in 40th.

Based on available data, it appears that Southern Utah has lower rates of opioid-related deaths compared to the rest of the state, Blodgett said. Even so, drug-related deaths are still extremely prevalent, and the health department is creating a community action plan to organize their efforts so they can better address the problem.

“There is work to be done in this area,” Blodgett said.

Even though Utah ranked fourth for having low obesity rates, the health department still sees them as too high. Obesity can be a dangerous health epidemic, leading to other health issues such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

“I think we live in an area where there are plenty of outdoor activities available and a close-knit community, all of which contribute to helping encourage people to get out and be active,” Blodgett said.

Utah is first in the nation for having a low number of deaths from cancer – 150.4 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the report. Nationally, however, cancer deaths are on the rise, increasing by 6 percent in the past five years.

Utah’s low rates of cancer deaths may be related to the state’s lower numbers of obesity and smoking, Blodgett said. Cigarette smoking accounts for around 30 percent of all cancer deaths in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society.

Lower rates of obesity may also contribute to the state ranking as No. 1 when it comes to the percent of adults with diabetes.

“Diabetes and obesity rates are closely linked. Diabetes threatens to be a defining characteristic of American life well into the future, with the potential to kill millions of people and bankrupt the medical system,” Blodgett said. “Probably over a third of our population is either diabetic or pre-diabetic. Whether or not we are higher or lower than the national average, that is something that needs to improve.”

Stock image | St. George News

Utah also ranked third for having low amounts of frequent physical distress, and 21st for frequent mental distress, according to the report. It ranked 19th for cardiovascular deaths, 13th for infant mortality and 14th for the number of premature death of those under age 75, ranking 5th overall for outcomes.

The state came in 37th in the disparity in health status, or the reduction of the difference in health issues between those who have more education and those who have less. Those with better education tend to have better health overall.

Utah ranked 11th in community and environment issues, doing very well as the state with the second-lowest rate of child poverty. The state ranked 36th for air pollution, 17th for occupational fatalities and 12th for violent crime.

The state also ranked fifth when it comes to infectious diseases such as chlamydia, salmonella and pertussis, or whooping cough. For whooping cough alone, however, Utah ranked 42nd.

Blodgett attributes higher cases of whooping cough to a lower number of people vaccinating against the respiratory disease.

“There are areas in our district that simply do not vaccinate. This is a growing nationwide problem as evidenced by events such as the measles outbreak in Washington State,” Blodgett said. “ As more people choose not to vaccinate, we will likely see increasing cases of pertussis and other vaccine-preventable diseases.”

Read more: ‘We’re being diligent and watching for it’; local case of mumps prompts push for MMR vaccine

When it comes to immunizations as a whole, Utah ranked fairly low – 40th for children receiving vaccinations and 31st for adolescents.

“When you don’t see a disease in the community, it is easy to think that there isn’t a need to be vaccinated. Most don’t stop to think that the reason it is rare is because of vaccination success,” Blodgett said.

HPV vaccination in adolescents is especially low, ranking 44th for males and 47th for females, according to the report. Despite this, Utah is among the states with the lowest rates of HPV infection, Blodgett said.   

Chlamydia, on the other hand, has increased by 43 percent over the past seven years, according to the report.

Additionally, Utah is 33rd when it comes to uninsured populations and 32nd for public health funding. All of these things combined give Utah a rank of 37th for policy, its lowest ranking category.

Utah did well in clinical care, ranking sixth overall. It did very well in treating preventable hospitalizations, coming in second. It also did well regarding the number of mental health providers, dentists and the number of low birthweights. However, Utah did poorly when it comes to the number of primary care physicians, ranking 49th.

Read more: Study ranks Utah health care high for patient outcomes, not so good for access

While Utah ranked highly overall compared to other states in the nation, there’s always room to improve the population’s overall health. And the health department is working to do just that, Blodgett said.

“Most of the factors that most impact health are related to lifestyle and behavior, our mission is to help people in their quest to live healthier lives,” Blodgett said.   

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews | @MikaylaShoup

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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