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updated: 4/4/2012 5:20 AM

Suburban counties fare well in state health rankings

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  • The bike path through Geneva's Island Park is one of the many fitness options keeping Kane County residents among the most healthy in the state.

      The bike path through Geneva's Island Park is one of the many fitness options keeping Kane County residents among the most healthy in the state.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer, Sept. 20


A relatively high amount of physical activity may have been one of the key drivers Tuesday in Kane County being named the eighth healthiest county in the state.

Suburban counties fared well in the rankings, as compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. Kendall, DuPage, McHenry, Kane and Lake counties all ranked among the top 10 healthiest areas to live in Illinois. Cook County ranked 71st out of the state's 102 counties. Kendall County ranked No. 1 for the third straight year.

Dr. Amaal Tokars, executive director of the Kendall County Health Department, said area residents should put the rankings in the perspective of a state and nation that is having tough economic times. While many of the suburban counties ranked high in the study, Tokars said residents should understand the rankings partially reflect the degree of suffering their residents have endured during the downturn.

Kendall County, for example, has residents with more fortunate social and economic backgrounds than many other counties in the state, Tokars said. At the same time, it also has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. An emergency homeless shelter program began in Kendall County last year for the first time in its history, Tokars said.

"Access to care is all about socio-economic status," she said. "If you don't have work, you don't have insurance."

Eye on food

Most other area counties either nudged forward or down the rankings by only one notch compared to last year.

Kane County is on the positive side of that movement, moving up from ninth place in 2011. Most of the data used for the rankings comes from 2009 and 2010. But new factors considered in the ranking may have pushed Kane County up the ladder.

Authors of the study factored in how many fast-food restaurants are in a county and the levels of physical inactivity reported among residents for the first time.

The study shows 53 percent of the restaurants in Kane County are fast-food establishments. That put Kane County in a tie for the sixth-highest percentage of fast food restaurants along with DuPage and Cook counties. Lake County is at 54 percent. Will County is at 58 percent, the highest percentage for any Illinois county, with at least 100 fast-food restaurants.

The study's authors said a benchmark goal should be a number of fast-food restaurants that account for no more than 25 percent of local eateries.

But balancing out those eating habits, Kane and other local counties ranked relatively high in the amount of physical activity residents enjoy in their leisure time.

The study showed 77 percent of adults 20 and older in Kane County engage in some form of physical activity in their leisure time. That was good enough to rank Kane County second best among all Illinois counties. DuPage and Lake counties tied for first in that category at 81 percent.

Kane County

Kane County Health Department Executive Director Paul Kuehnert said he's pleased with the county's ranking, but officials won't be complacent.

"Even though we ranked among the best in the state, the rankings reveal areas where we can improve," Kuehnert said in a written statement. "It helps us identify areas where we still need to do more to shape our environment to support healthy choices."

Indeed, the county's goal is to be the healthiest county in the state by 2030. To get there, the county will unveil its 2012-2016 community health improvement plan next week.

The plan address the new health priorities for the county. Among those will be preventing excessive consumption of alcohol; eliminate racial disparities in health outcomes, especially in infant mortality; assure access to safe food and clean and safe water and air; and increase the job skills and readiness of the county's unemployed.

That last priority area could be key. The county's own stats show the percentage of residents in Kane County with health insurance dropped to 89.1 percent in 2011, the lowest it's been since 2004.

McHenry County

McHenry County dropped to fifth place after last year's fourth-place ranking. However, the county had three top-10 finishes among several key areas of public health measurements.

It ranked fourth best in Illinois for how long its residents live and the overall health behaviors of those residents. The county also ranked seventh best for the social and economic factors of its residents, such as household income, educational attainment and single-parent households.

"The rankings help support important work that is going on already in McHenry County, every day," McHenry County's Public Health Administrator Patrick J. McNulty said in a written statement. "We hope the county health rankings spur all sectors -- government, business, community and faith-based groups, education and public health -- to work together on solutions that address barriers to good health and help all residents lead healthier lives."

DuPage County

DuPage County, which placed third overall, has been consistently ranked as one of the state's healthiest counties in the years since the survey began. DuPage took first in the health factors category, which included statistics better than the state benchmark. For instance:

• The county's teen birthrate is 17 for every 1,000 females ages 15-19, while the state's rate is 40.

• For every primary care physician, there are 524 people, compared to 778 statewide.

• The violent crime rate is 111, compared to the state's 532, per 100,000 population.

• Nine percent of children under age 18 are in poverty, compared to 19 percent statewide.

DuPage Health Department spokesman Jason Gerwig said county officials have had to respond to unmet needs in the community, in light of changing demographics and the economic downturn. That includes expansion of a dental program for those without insurance.

"It's a perfect example of us seeing the need in the community, seeing the lack of service in some areas, and us finding a way to fill that need," Gerwig said.

Lake County

Lake County maintained its top 10 ranking but also slipped one spot to ninth place after reaching eighth place last year. Officials said the ranking verifies several areas that are an ongoing health concern already recognized by the county's health department.

One of those areas is adult obesity. The study shows 25 percent of adults in Lake County qualify as being obese. Officials launched an obesity prevention conversation two years ago to work on a communitywide strategy for reducing that rate.

Lake County officials also said they aren't pleased with number of adults reporting excessive drinking (16 percent) or smoking (15 percent).

"Overall, we are pleased with the ranking, which for the third consecutive year puts Lake County among the top 10 healthiest counties in Illinois," said Irene Pierce, executive director of the Lake County Health Department/Community Health Center. "Lake County is overall a healthy county, but work still needs to be done."

Cook County

Cook County struggled more with its ranking than other local counties on the lists. But officials said there are positives to draw from the study.

With its massive population and geographical area, Cook County faces significant challenges.

Sandra Martell, interim chief operating officer at the Cook County Department of Public Health, said one in four Cook County residents is considered at or below the federal poverty limit while one in five is uninsured. She also pointed to the county's violent crime rate as a major factor in determining Cook County's overall health.

"With such disparities in economic status between communities, there are access and health equity concerns," Martell said.

One positive she took from the new rankings was how closely they mirrored the county's recent community health assessment. Using that resident input, the department is working to implement various programs and interventions as part of its new five-year community health improvement plan known as WePLAN.

Nationally, the study showed several distinct regional patterns including:

• Excessive drinking rates are highest in northern states.

• Rates of teen births, sexually transmitted infections, and children in poverty are highest across the southern states.

• Unemployment rates are lowest in the northeast, Midwest and central plains states.

• Motor vehicle crash deaths are lowest in the northeastern and upper Midwest states.

• Daily Herald staff writers Elena Ferrarin, Kimberly Pohl, Christopher Placek and Mick Zawislak contributed to this story.

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