Northern W.Va. counties better in health

WHEELING – Ohio County is the 12th healthiest county in West Virginia, as new study indicates northern counties continue to be better off than those in the southern part of the state.

The report, released Wednesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin researchers, ranks counties by several health factors such as smoking, drinking, obesity, premature deaths and other areas, including education, access to health care and unemployment.

“That is about where we should be,” Ohio County Health Administrator Howard Gamble said of the 12th-place ranking among West Virginia’s 55 counties. “We have a lot of things going for us.”

Gamble cited the presence of Wheeling Hospital, Ohio Valley Medical Center, Wheeling Jesuit University and West Liberty University as some of the main reasons for Ohio County’s relatively high ranking. Access to health care and education are among the main factors in the ranking system.

“Would we like to be No. 1? Of course,” said Gamble. “But we are doing pretty well.”

For the rest of the Northern Panhandle, counties ranked as follows: Marshall, 15th; Hancock, 16th; Tyler, 18th; Brooke, 23rd; and Wetzel, 29th.

The state of Ohio has 88 counties. Monroe County ranks as the healthiest in the local area at 43rd; Belmont County ranks 56th; Harrison is 63rd; and Jefferson is 80th.

In claiming the healthiest position in West Virginia, Monongalia County overtook Pendleton County, which had been No. 1 the past three years. McDowell County ranked last for the fourth straight year that the report has been released.

Monongalia County had the lowest number of premature deaths, and for at least the fourth straight year had the lowest rates of unhealthy behaviors that include adult smoking and obesity, physical inactivity, excessive drinking, fatal motor vehicle crashes, sexually transmitted diseases and births among teen mothers.

The county also showed a slight improvement in clinical care and in physical environment, which combines access to recreational facilities and healthy foods, as well as lower rates of fast-food restaurants and air pollution.

This year’s study used figures from 2008-10. Last year’s study used figures from 2006-08.

While West Virginia has the second-oldest median age in the nation (41.3) and the second-highest percentage of residents age 65 and older (16 percent), Monongalia County’s median age of 29.1 in 2010 was by far the lowest in the state, a reflection of the presence of West Virginia University in Morgantown. Only 10 percent of the county’s residents were over 65. By comparison, rural Pendleton County had the highest median age at 47.3.

Not only is Monongalia County the healthiest, it’s been the fastest-growing county in the state since 2008 and has the lowest unemployment rate, well below the state average of 8 percent.

“Just living in Morgantown doesn’t mean you’re going to be healthier,” said Dr. Gilbert Ramirez, senior associate dean of academic affairs for the WVU School of Public Health and a member of the county’s Board of Health. But the statistics “allow us to start trying to understand why it appears that way.”

Dana King, a professor and chairman of WVU’s Department of Family Medicine, noted that while Monongalia County’s 10 recreational facilities were higher than the state average of seven, there’s a lack of bike lanes and shoulders along roads for people who want to exercise.

“There’s always room for more accessible places,” he said. “Just imagine, what if everybody was really out walking 30 minutes a day. Where would they do it?”

Pendleton County’s drop from the top spot might be because it had slight dips in clinical care, which included the percentage of uninsured residents, the number of primary-care physicians and dentists, screenings for diabetes and breast cancer, and preventable hospital stays; and in social-economic factors such as graduation rates, unemployment and poverty.

Doddridge County leaped from ninth to third in the study and was followed by Jefferson, Hampshire, Tucker, Pleasants, Upshur, Putnam and Hardy. Putnam is the lone southern county in the top 10.

Ritchie County improved from 30th to 11th and Gilmer improved from 45th to 24th.

Wirt fell from fourth to 22nd and Taylor went from 17th to 30th.

In ranking last, McDowell County had a premature death rate nearly double the state average, and it also has high rates of physical inactivity, adult smoking and obesity.