HANCOCK COUNTY — Hancock County has fewer adult smokers than the state average and better local access to medical care — factors a new study says make its residents some of the healthiest in Indiana.
Since 2010, the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps project has measured communities’ overall health by tracking a variety of data, including premature deaths, obesity rates and access to fitness opportunities, among other statistics.
Each year, Indiana counties are ranked 1-92 in two overarching categories: health outcomes and health factors.
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This year, Hancock County ranks fifth overall on the health outcomes list, which focuses on how long people live and how healthy they feel during their lifetimes, compared with placing 26th last year. The county ranks sixth for the second year running in health factors — those things that influence community health, such as clinical care, environmental factors and individual health choices like drinking and smoking.
Hamilton County is ranked healthiest in the state in both categories. Scott County in southern Indiana ranks last in health outcomes, while Marion County ranks last in health factors.
Researchers say not all the 2015 data can be directly compared to this year’s data because of a change in survey methods. But that same change — a phone survey was expanded to include mobile phone numbers — increased the number of people interviewed for the study and makes the new data more accurate, said Jan O’Neill, associate researcher at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, which oversees the study.
Data pulled from public records still allows comparison to previous years, O’Neill said.
For example, Hancock County jumped in the rankings because of a reduction in reports of premature death, which is provided by the National Center for Health Statistics, O’Neill said.
The county’s rate of premature death, measured as years of life lost before age 75 per 100,000 people, falls below the state’s rate. The 2016 report recorded the county’s premature death rate at 6,400, down from 6,429 the year before. The state’s premature death rate is 7,600, the 2016 report states.
The county also showed improvement in quality of life, which measures residents’ physical and mental health.
Local fitness leaders say the community support for a new wellness center in McCordsville, which opened earlier this year, is just one good sign residents are making the transition to healthier lifestyles.
Being active is just one part of the center’s mission, said Hancock Wellness director David Flench.
“I think we still have a big opportunity to improve our county’s nutritional habits,” Flench said. “Physical activity is great, but without nutrition, we’ll never be as healthy as we want to be.”
Since the county ranking program’s inception, Hancock County has fared better than the state average in the number of adult smokers, which contributes to its high health factors ranking.
The county has programs in place to prevent citizens from picking up the habit as well as for helping current smokers to quit, said Brandee Bastin, Hancock Regional Hospital tobacco initiatives coordinator. In the 2016 health rankings, the number of individuals who reported smoking dropped two percentage pointed compared with 2015.
Youth programs in county school districts help youths to understand the risks of smoking and prevent them from later becoming part of those adult statistics, Bastin said.
For those who do smoke, Bastin and others work to promote smoke-free workplace initiatives and tobacco-free policies. In addition, Indiana has offered the Indiana Tobacco Quitline (1-800-QUIT-NOW) for a decade. The Quitline provides extra help to pregnant women to get them to quit and prevent them from starting again after giving birth, Bastin said, in order to improve the health of everyone around them.
The county health rankings aim not only to recognize communities whose citizens are making healthy choices but to empower local leaders to target areas for improvement.
For example, while reports of smoking have decreased in Hancock County, reports of obesity increased from 30 percent to 35 percent in 2016, according to the rankings.
Obesity is one of the biggest health risks to Hancock County residents, said Danielle Daugherty, Hancock Regional Hospital’s healthy community coordinator.
“Another worry becomes the chronic fallout diseases like diabetes and hypertension,” she said.
Daugherty said overall changes in the county’s culture are needed to continue that positive trend of Hancock County residents living long lives. She said seeing health become a major concern in Hancock County communities’ comprehensive plans makes her optimistic for the future of the county.
“I think we are at the cultural change point,” she said. “I think we as a county are ready.”