Cook, collar counties receive high, improving marks in latest state health rankings
Cook and its five suburban collar counties all showed improvements in the latest ranking of the healthiest places to live in Illinois.
DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties have all ranked in or near the 10 healthiest counties in the state for at least five years. In the latest rankings, DuPage County is ranked the healthiest of all 102 counties in Illinois. McHenry County is fourth, Lake County fifth, Kane County seventh and Will County places ninth.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute created the rankings, which compare more than 30 factors including education, exercise and the local economy.
DuPage officials attributed the county's No. 1 ranking to a focus on behavioral health, housing and health improvements in the past three years. The efforts expanded access to health services for low-income residents, put a focus on opioid abuse and mental health needs, and increased healthy eating and exercise opportunities. The DuPage Housing Collaborative also worked to create more affordable housing.
"We will continue our work to further improve the health of our communities, recognizing that not all residents enjoy the same access or outcomes," said Karen Ayala, executive director of the DuPage County Health Department. "This is particularly important as we face the challenges further revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic."
Ayala's recognition that some residents do not have the same healthy environment as others was acknowledged by Mark Pfister, executive director of the Lake County Health Department.
Lake County slipped to fifth place from fourth last year.
The rankings show the average Lake County resident has a life span and quality of life similar to DuPage residents. Both communities rank near the top in access to exercise opportunities. But, compared to DuPage, there are more areas in Lake County that struggle with children in poverty, with single-parent households and relatively low high school graduation rates.
"Where you start seeing variations between us and DuPage is when you get into the socio-economic factors," Pfister said. "In some areas of Lake we have extreme wealth, and then we have extreme poverty. That's one of the most challenging things in Lake County."
Pfister said disparities in access to quality schools, which affect employment, insurance and health choices down the line, stem from Illinois' use of property taxes to fund schools. That creates inequity, he said. Pfister believes health officials must lobby to change that as part of improving residents' health.
"We have to work toward policy determinations in Illinois to assure that the Waukegan school district, which does not have the same (tax base) to fund schools as other communities in the southern part of Lake County, has the same access to opportunities that will lead to better health outcomes," Pfister said.
Cook County, which includes Chicago, typically sees its ranking influenced by the educational and economic challenges Pfister and Ayala are addressing on a smaller scale. This year, Cook's 44th ranking is its best in the last five years. In 2017, the county ranked 59th. But challenges remain. For example, nearly one-third of Cook residents are obese and the rate of sexually transmitted infections has increased yearly since 2013.
The obesity rate is even higher in McHenry County, which still managed to rise one notch to fourth place. McHenry gets high ratings in social and economic indicators including high school completion, low unemployment and income equality.
Will County placed ninth overall. It received high marks for a low teen birthrate as well as a high number of residents with insurance coverage. It can improve in preventable hospital stays, socializing opportunities for residents and adult obesity.
Kane County rose one notch to seventh place. The data shows county residents have abundant opportunities for exercise and a low rate of injuries resulting in death. But, like its neighbors, the county could see improvement in obesity and smoking and has a relatively high unemployment rate.
"Even if we rank relatively high overall, we know we can take steps to improve the health of all our residents," said Kathy Fosser, interim executive director of the Kane County Public Health Department. "The county health rankings show us that where we live matters to our health."