Health varies widely by county

Monroe County near St. Louis is healthiest along with Chicago suburbs, while Alexander County to south and Vermillion County to east among worst

Cairo’s Alexander County ranked last among the 102 Illinois counties in health factors, next to last in health outcomes. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Cairo’s Alexander County ranked last among the 102 Illinois counties in health factors, next to last in health outcomes. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

A new study of U.S. counties finds that health levels vary widely across Illinois, and that it’s not always the areas that have the best care that are healthiest, although there’s a strong correlation.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute released its annual County Health Rankings & Roadmaps study last week. It found that Illinois compared favorably with national averages on key health statistics.

For instance, by a measure of years lost to early death, considered before age 75, per 100,000 people, Illinois lost 6,600 years compared to the national average of 6,900. Illinois had a slightly higher average of people reporting lower levels of either “fair” or “poor” health, 17 percent compared to the national average of 16 percent, while both registered that 8 percent of all births were considered low birthweight, at 5.5 pounds or below.

Yet the healthiest Illinois county averaged 4,100 years lost, compared to the unhealthiest at 12,700, the healthiest county registered just 11 percent of residents reporting feeling “fair” or “poor,” compared to more than a quarter of all residents, 27 percent, in the worst, and the best Illinois county reported 5 percent of births at low weight, while the worst county had 12 percent.

The study weighed “health outcomes,” how people actually fared in their health, against “health factors,” including data such as smoking and obesity rates, education, insurance levels, and access to local health care. One tended to suggest the other, but not absolutely.

The healthiest Illinois county by outcomes was found to be Monroe, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. It ranked second in “health factors” behind suburban Chicago’s DuPage County, which placed second in overall health.

At the other end of the spectrum, the same flip-flop occurred. Vermillion County on the eastern border with Indiana ranked last in outcomes, just behind Cairo’s Alexander County at the southern tip of Illinois, but Alexander ranked last in health factors, just ahead of Vermillion.

It was telling that counties with mid-level towns placed in the bottom quarter in both categories among the state’s 102 counties, including Winnebago County with Rockford, Peoria County with Peoria, Knox County with Galesburg, and Vermillion with Danville. Otherwise, the pockets of low health outcomes were in east-central and southern Illinois, and the same went for health factors, except that almost all of southern Illinois placed in the bottom quarter in factors, with only Williamson County with its largest town of Marion making it up toward the middle, ranking 68th in outcomes and 56th in factors.

Chicago’s Cook County ranked in the bottom half in both outcomes (52nd) and factors (64th).

Kendall County, including some of the more distant southwest Chicago suburbs (more or less) like Oswego and Yorkville, placed third in the state in best health outcomes, but seventh in health factors, while central Woodford County, northwest of Bloomington-Normal, placed fourth in outcomes and third in factors.

The study produced an interactive state map by county.

Vermillion County ranked in the bottom three statewide in quality of life, health factors, health behaviors, and social and economic factors, including 19 percent of people in fair or poor health, 10 percent low birthweight, 18 percent smokers, and more than a third, 35 percent, obese.

Alexander County reported more than a quarter, 27 percent, feeling fair or poor, with 8 percent low birthweight, 24 percent smokers, and 28 percent obese.

At the other end on outcomes, Monroe County reported just 11 percent of people feeling fair or poor, 7 percent low birthweight, 13 percent smokers, but its health factors were weighed down by a third, 33 percent, being obese.

DuPage County, by contrast, reported 14 percent feeling fair or poor, 7 percent low birthweight, 12 percent smokers, and only a quarter, 25 percent, obese, and it ranked in the top three in clinical care and social and economic factors, which generally overcame ranking 91st among state counties in physical factors, including generally poor air quality and a high rate of driving alone over a long commute to work.

The study found, not surprisingly, that economic factors were key to overall health. It placed a strong emphasis on affordable housing, pointing out that 60 percent of Illinois children living in poverty in 2017 were in households that spent more than half their income on housing, leaving relatively little for healthy food, adequate health care, and transportation.

It advocated housing vouchers and trust funds, vocational training for adults, and expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit to level the playing field and improve health overall.