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updated: 4/19/2017 4:06 PM

Suburban counties rate well in health rankings

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Though DuPage County lost its crown as the healthiest community in Illinois, new health rankings show the suburban collar counties continue to supply some of the best and longest living in the state.

An ongoing trend, however, of more sexually transmitted infections continues to plague several areas.

Collar counties took five of the top 12 spots in the ranking of all 102 Illinois counties by the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. DuPage County saw the biggest change from last year's rankings, moving from first place last year to fifth in the latest version. One factor playing a role in DuPage's drop is a steadily increasing number of sexually transmitted infections. The county posted higher numbers of such infections every year from 2009 to 2014, the latest year the study factors in that health stat.

Data for the rankings comes from more than 20 sources, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, FBI crime statistics and the American Community Survey. There are often new measures added or tweaked each year, making apples-to-apples comparisons difficult. Access to healthy foods, smoking habits and teen birthrates are all factors that play into the study each year.

"We take pride in consistently ranking among the top five health counties in Illinois," said Karen Ayala, executive director of the DuPage County Health Department. "The high ranking is the result of the collaborative effort of countywide partnerships that meet the priority health needs of the county."

Ayala pointed to the eight award-winning hospitals in DuPage as a major factor in the quality of health care access for its residents.

Kane County ranked as high as fifth in the rankings in 2015. It came in 12th this year after ranking 13th in 2016. The county's sexually transmitted infection rate has been fairly steady in recent years but with a slight uptick in the most recent year factored into the study.

Barb Jeffers, the executive director of Kane County's health department, said the county is doing an increasingly better job of addressing health disparities. Kane's clinical care score improved as did several social and economic measures of the county's population.

"The higher your education level, the fewer people in poverty you usually have," Jeffers said. "Your education level is directly related to your level of employment. The fewer people you have in poverty, the better quality of life you're going to have."

Jeffers called on all decision-makers in Kane County to contemplate the health impacts of the votes they cast.

Lake County improved its ranking for the third straight year. It rose from 15th two years ago to seventh last year and to sixth this year. Mark Pfister, executive director of the Lake County Health Department, said he's still not satisfied with the placement. Like DuPage, Lake has also seen an upward trend on sexually transmitted infections since 2010.

"We continue to be one of the healthiest counties in Illinois, but we still have work to do," Pfister said. "The recent update to our mission and vision statements reflects our focus on promoting the health and well-being of all who live, work and play in Lake County."

Cook County, which includes Chicago, is also on a run up the rankings. In 2014, Cook residents lived in the bottom tier of healthy communities, coming in at 75 out of 102 counties. After two years of sitting in 64th place, the study ranked Cook as the 59th healthiest county. Cook County's number of sexually transmitted infections has been much higher than both state and national infection rates in every year of the study.

Deanna Durica, the interim director of policy development and communications for Cook County's Department of Public Health, said suburban Cook performs better than the national average in adult obesity, adult smoking and physical inactivity. Areas identified as needing improvement include excessive drinking and air pollution.

One area where suburban Cook County is more than 50 percent higher than the national rate is in its number of residents that drive alone and have a long commute to work. These factors are known to have a negative effect on the environment from air pollution, a negative effect on health from obesity, high blood pressure and related issues, and a negative effect on income, Durica said.

"The report measures health outcomes, like low birth weight, and health factors -- things like tobacco use, obesity, physical activity," she said. "It doesn't look at key social determinants of health -- things like economic stability and opportunity, quality of education, the built environment -- things that we know drive health inequities. Addressing those inequities is the focus of much of our work."

Durica said one way the Cook County Department of Public Health tries to do that is through its Healthy Hotspot initiative at cookcountypublichealth.org/healthy-hotspot.

The initiative aims to increase the number of places that make healthy living easier in communities, she said.

• Daily Herald staff writers Eric Peterson, Robert Sanchez and Mick Zawislak contributed to this report.

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