U.S. Health Stagnates for Fourth Year in a Row as Revealed in 2008 America’s Health Rankings

Dec. 5, 2008
Obesity, smoking and lack of health insurance remain critical areas for national improvement as Vermont ranks as nation’s healthiest state and Louisiana as the least healthy state.

In a disturbing development, the 2008 America’s Health Rankings: A Call to Action for Individuals & Their Communities revealed that the health of Americans has failed to improve for the fourth consecutive year. Key factors contributing to these results included unprecedented levels of obesity, an increasing number of uninsured people, and the persistence of risky health behaviors, particularly tobacco use.

Despite the discouraging national story, some states are making significant strides against some of the country’s biggest health challenges – demonstrating that there are workable solutions to the most prevalent health problems. Some significant findings from the report include:

  • During the 1990s, health improved at an average rate of 1.5 percent per year, but improvements against national health measurements have remained flat for the last 4 years. Smoking, obesity and the uninsured are the nation’s three most critical challenges.
  • Significant reductions in the prevalence of smoking have not occurred since the early 1990s and have virtually stalled in the last 4 years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the adverse health effects from smoking account for an estimated one out of every five deaths each year in the United States.
  • The prevalence of obesity has more than doubled in the last 19 years. An alarming one in four Americans is currently considered obese putting them at increased risk for health issues such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and cancer (endometrial, breast, colon and gallbladder).
  • Nearly 46 million Americans are currently uninsured, leaving them without adequate medical care for chronic conditions or preventive treatment that would help reduce future illnesses.

“Our collective national failure to successfully address the determinants of health over the past several years is tragically documented in this year’s report,” said Reed Tuckson, M.D., United Health Foundation board member and UnitedHealth Group executive vice president and chief of medical affairs. “Without action in these severe economic times, the harsh findings of this report will only be worse next year for our nation, states, communities, families and individuals.”

Saying this is the time for urgent and focused action, Tuckson added, “Our nation’s and our children’s health are too important to do otherwise.”

America’s Health Rankings 2008 edition shows Vermont as the healthiest state for the second year in a row. A broad range of health initiatives have made it possible for Vermont to make progress in areas where the rest of the country needs the greatest improvement. Within the state, the prevalence of smoking has declined to 17.6 percent of the population, there is a slower rise in obesity than the U.S. national average and the number of people without health insurance remains low.

Hawaii climbed from a ranking of third to second this year, followed by New Hampshire, Minnesota and Utah to round out the top five healthiest states. Utah currently leads the nation as the state with the lowest prevalence of smoking. Other states making progress against the nation’s biggest health challenges include Massachusetts (ranked 6), which leads the nation as the state with the lowest uninsured rate, and Colorado (ranked 19), which ranks as the state with the lowest prevalence of obesity.

Louisiana replaces Mississippi as the least healthy state this year. Challenges include a high prevalence of obesity, a high percentage of children in poverty and a high rate of uninsured population. Mississippi improved to 49th followed by South Carolina (ranked 48), Tennessee (ranked 47) and Texas (ranked 46). Each of these states continues to struggle with difficult socioeconomic challenges that manifest themselves in these rankings.

A comparison of state rankings from 2007 to 2008 indicates that 36 states had positive changes in their overall health scores and 14 experienced declines. States with the greatest overall health score improvement from 2007 are Arkansas, New Mexico and Kentucky. Texas and Montana have shown the least improvement in health over the last year.

“Effective solutions to many of the health challenges facing our nation are being developed and implemented at the state and community level,” said Corinne Husten, M.D., MPH, interim president of Partnership for Prevention. “We must learn from those who are getting it right and be inspired to implement our own creative solutions that will help produce a healthier America. The key is to expand these successful approaches beyond smaller pockets of progress and into widespread actions that are creative, measurable, collaborative and sustainable.”

There are manageable action steps people can take to stay healthy and improve the health of their community including:

  • Learn about your own health, identify risk factors and change your lifestyle accordingly.
  • Seek out trustworthy information about health issues.
  • Stop smoking!
  • Exercise regularly and eat properly.
  • Contact state and county health departments to learn about the health challenges relevant to where you live.
  • Organize community action by helping to create a shared vision for health and mobilize community organizations to achieve that vision.
  • Meeting with elected and appointed public officials to advocate for necessary and urgent action.
A complete listing of the 2008 state health rankings is available at http://www.americashealthrankings.org.
About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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