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A jump in the rate of exercise, a decline in premature deaths and a drop in violent crime were some of the trends that helped Sonoma County earn recognition in a new nationwide report as the eighth-healthiest county in California.

The rates of teen births, adult obesity and preventable hospital stays were all down, combining with other positive trends that moved Sonoma County up into the top 10 healthiest counties in the state, according to the 2015 County Health Rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The county’s previous statewide ranking was 12th.

The annual report, generated using state and federal data sources, was released today. The snapshot employs a range of measurements, from diet choices and poverty rates to drinking water safety and availability of dental care, to gauge health, quality of life and socioeconomic conditions across U.S. counties.

Sonoma County beat state averages for most of the indicators. It received poorer scores in other categories, including rates of smoking among adults, excessive drinking and deaths from injury, the report showed.

Eight years ago, the county set a goal to be the healthiest in the state, and local officials said the latest report card showed that residents’ overall well-being continues to improve.

“It’s excellent news,” county health officer Karen Millman said. “Where we have made progress is both the length of life as well as the socioeconomic factors that are contributing to people’s health.”

Among California’s 58 counties, only tiny Alpine County in the Sierra Nevada was not ranked.

In Sonoma County, the premature death rate — as measured by “years of potential life lost” before age 75 — declined 6 percent, from an estimate of 5,233 years in the 2014 rankings to 4,942 in this year’s rankings. The figure is a rate per 100,000 population.

In another measure, the share of local adults age 20 and older who reported no time for physical activity went from 14 to 12 percent. Physical activity includes such things as running, calisthenics, golf, gardening or walking.

The number of violent crimes in the county per 100,000 people went from 382 to 366 in the 2015 rankings. Violent crimes include such offenses as homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. The statewide violent-crimes rate was 425 per 100,000 people.

Kate Konkle, associate researcher at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, said the rankings are aimed at making counties look at health in a more comprehensive way, one that involves leaders in business, education, community development and anyone else impacted by the 30 health factors measured.

“We really want this to be an opportunity for communities to start the conversation about health and to broaden the conversation about health … to talk about local solutions so that everybody can have that same option to live a long and healthy life,” she said.

While Sonoma County has improved its overall health ranking, Konkle pointed out that the rankings are relative and it may be that other counties did worse this time around.

“Either way, you do rank fairly well in California,” she said, adding that she hopes county officials “dig deeper” into the data to determine where more work needs to be done.

As it has since at least 2010, Marin County continued to hold the No. 1 overall ranking in the report. Lake County moved up one spot this year to 56; Napa moved up two spots to 13; and Mendocino moved up nine spots to 35.

Sonoma County health officials said the report reflected some of their successes and other areas where they need to make more investments.

Millman, the county health officer, pointed out that the share of county adults who currently smoke every day or most days remained at 14 percent.

That’s phenomenal compared to Powell County, Ky., where a whopping 45 percent of the county’s adults are current smokers. But in California, the overall share of adults who are smokers is 13 percent.

“It’s not always whether or not you’re doing better than someone else, but are you doing as well as you could or should be,” Millman said.

In the coming weeks, the county Board of Supervisors is set to consider a tobacco retailer licensing program aimed at discouraging youth from starting to smoke.

Millman said another low mark for the county is the availability of affordable housing.

According to the latest rankings, 25 percent of Sonoma County residents reported having problems with at least one of the following housing problems: high housing costs, overcrowding and lack of kitchen or plumbing facilities.

Susan Gorin, the Board of Supervisors chairwoman, said tackling the ongoing lack of affordable housing, brought on by the credit implosion, subsequent recession and a countywide shortage in rental apartments, is the board’s “number one priority.”

“We’re going to be working on that, but it’s going to take a while to get there,” she said.

Gorin said the report would help steer the county’s ambitious health initiative.

“I love that we’re making progress here and that others are recognizing the amount of investment we have been making in programs leading to better health outcomes,” she said.

The full list of rankings is available at countyhealthrankings.org.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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