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Hancock County ranks in top third of health study

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HANCOCK COUNTY — A recent nationwide study shows Hancock County is a good place to be in relation to the rest of the state if you’re measuring healthy places to live.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute recently ranked Hancock County 25th of the state’s 92 counties in terms of general health outcomes in its annual study released Wednesday.

The study, which ranks the health of nearly every county in the country, correlated a variety of information in six broad categories including death rates, quality of life, health behaviors, social factors and physical environment to place the county in the top quarter of Indiana’s healthy counties. The rankings are based on county-level data from a variety of state and national sources.

Hamilton, Hendricks and Boone counties topped the Indiana list for the second year in a row, while Scott, Starke and Fayette counties were deemed the least successful in health outcomes, according to the study.

Scott and Fayette also were among the least healthy counties a year ago.

Though Hancock County fared well again this year, it fell out of the top quarter of the state’s healthiest counties, dropping six spots from last year’s ranking of 19th.

The study cautions against a year-to-year comparison because of changes in criteria definitions; however, a broad view indicates county residents’ health behaviors have slipped over the past year while the county’s physical environment has improved.

Overall, the county’s physical environment, defined to include safe drinking water, air pollution and commute time, jumped up from a rank of 80 in 2013 to 61 this year, though several of the criteria were changed.

Individually, however, the study dropped the county from being fourth in the state to 25th when factoring in adult smoking, obesity and physical inactivity, though the county’s numbers still remain below the state average.

“I was surprised by a few of the findings,” said David Flench, director of  Hancock Wellness Center. “Obesity flatlined a bit, but we’re still below the state levels.”

Though there’s always room for improvement, Flench said he felt the county was doing a good job in providing healthy opportunities for residents with plans for park and trail expansion, healthy lifestyle initiatives and the availability of gyms and health clubs that people seem to be taking advantage of.

“In the three years I’ve been (at the Wellness Center), we’ve grown by over 10 percent,” he said.

Economics and social issues also factor into the calculus, and the fact that the study’s top three healthiest counties also happen to be among the state’s wealthiest is not surprising.

The study indicated that numbers for children in proverty and unemployment were up, though well below the state average and, in terms of unemployment, far below the the dark days of 2010, when the county’s unemployment figures were more than 8 percent.

“This is not brain surgery,” said Paula Jarrett, Hancock County area director for the United Way of Central Indiana. “There is a direct correlation between increased education, increased income and better health.”

Jarrett said hunger is a known issue in the county, along with unemployment, underemployment and the uninsured or underinsured.

Though people need to take personal responsibility for their own health and well-being, there are financial issues that can wreak havoc.

“Medical bills can have a devastating effect on families,” she said. “What’s worse is when those bills don’t get paid, and even worse than that is when people don’t seek health care when they need it,” she said.

“The Great Recession was a game-changer for the working and the middle class,” Jarrett said. “And we’re still feeling the effects of that.”

The University of Wisconsin study can be found online at www.countyhealthrankings.org.

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