Almost all of Allen County’s health woes can be condensed to two words: lifestyle choices. Or maybe three words: bad lifestyle choices.
Adult obesity, low birth weights and sexually transmitted infections are all the result of lifestyle behaviors that contribute to the overall health and welfare of the county, said Dr. Deborah McMahan, Allen County health commissioner.
In the fourth annual County Health Rankings report, compiled by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Allen County was ranked the 40th healthiest among Indiana’s 92 counties, a drop from last year’s rank of 35th.
The report considers several factors, such as the rate of people dying before the age of 75, a county’s physical environment, levels of poverty and unemployment and residents’ access to medical care, among others, to come up with the rankings.
McMahan is not happy with the overall trends shown in the report.
“I know the community is capable of doing much better,” she said.
Although Allen County’s adult obesity rate of 33 percent did not change from last year, records show that the county has seen growing obesity rates since 2004.
This could be blamed in part on fast-food locations, which make up 46 percent of restaurants in the county. But McMahan said it’s time to stop blaming the restaurants.
“People make choices,” she said. “They can choose to eat healthier options, even at fast-food establishments.”
The report found that 22 percent of Allen County adults smoke, 17 percent drink excessive amounts of alcohol and 26 percent do not engage in many physical activities.
“All of these choices can lead to heart disease, diabetes and cancers and are indicators of the overall health of our county,” McMahan said.
Allen County has some of the best parks, recreational trails and fitness centers in the state, but “just because they are there does not mean people will use them,” McMahan said.
The chlamydia rate was 572 cases per 100,000 people, up only slightly from last year but a worrisome statistic, McMahan said.
Nine percent of babies born in Allen County will suffer from low birth weight, according to the report.
“This leads to higher infant mortality and children with health problems,” McMahan said.
Those babies are usually born into high-risk circumstances.
“Seventeen percent of pregnant women smoke,” McMahan said, “and many do not access prenatal care during the important first trimester.”
All too often, low birth weight is an indicator of other issues at play, she said.
Allen County ranked 53rd in the state in social and economic factors – an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent; one-fourth of children living in poverty; and 33 percent of children living with only one parent.
“There are always exceptions, but by and large, single-parent households are predictors of poverty,” McMahan said.
Many times, children living in poverty will have long-term problems, such as trouble with graduating from high school or attaining higher education, inadequate social support, unemployment or turning to crime, she said.
For the fourth consecutive year, Scott County – in the southeastern part of Indiana – ranked dead last at 92nd overall.
Several counties in northeast Indiana made it into the top 10: LaGrange, fifth; Wells, sixth; and Whitley, ninth.
Changes in Allen County will require three things, McMahan said.
“First, people must be physically and mentally centered,” she said.
They also must have access to resources such as healthy food and modes of exercise.
And finally, the community must create expectations of health, education and prosperity, McMahan said.
McMahan has joined with health officials from six nearby counties to form a community health plan. They will focus on one issue at a time – the first being obesity, she said.
“We all have to be mentors; we all have to get involved,” McMahan said.