Report deems Sonoma County 6th healthiest in state

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Improvements in the rates of premature death, childhood poverty and unemployment are among the trends that helped Sonoma County earn recognition in a new nationwide report as the sixth-healthiest county in California.

The current results mark the third consecutive year the county has shown improvement in annual health rankings compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. Previously, the county ranked eighth in 2015 and 12th in 2014.

“These reports are really useful in raising awareness,” said Karen Milman, Sonoma County’s health officer. “It’s always good to have some metrics to know that you’re moving in the right direction.”

But Milman said the report card continues to point out the county’s healthcare shortcomings, with the county lagging the statewide average in both adult smoking and obesity rates.

The report found Sonoma County had 4,700 “years of potential lost life” for every 100,000 people. That rate was 4,942 in last year’s report and 5,233 in the 2014 report.

The rate is based on the number of years of lost potential life before age 75. For example, someone who dies at 25 contributes 50 years of life lost, but a person who dies at 65 contributes only 10 years of life lost to the rate.

North Coast health officials said the report uses data that is a few years old, up to 2014, so the most recent efforts to improve rankings won’t appear until a two or more years from now. The health rankings can be found at www.countyhealthrankings.org.

Other results for Sonoma County that bested state trends this year include 14 percent of children living in poverty, compared to 23 percent statewide. The child poverty rate is 13 percent for the nation’s “top performers.”

Unemployment in this year’s report, based on 2014 numbers, was 5.6 percent for those over 16, compared to 7.5 percent for the state. The county’s unemployment ranking last year was 6.7 percent, compared to 8.9 for the state. Unemployment has dropped to 4.1 percent in Sonoma County as of February of this year.

This year’s report found that adult obesity in the county — defined as the share of adults that report a body mass index of 30 or more — was at 27 percent, compared to 23 percent for the state. And the share of adults who smoke tobacco was 15 percent, compared to 12 percent for the state.

Milman said recent efforts to curb smoking in public places, improve nutrition in school lunch programs and encourage physical activity should begin to be reflected in future rankings with lower obesity rates. The key to achieving such goals, health officials said, is creating environments that make changing such behaviors easier.

“You can’t just be focused on health education; you have to change the environment,” she said. “That’s how we’ve been successful with tobacco; that’s how we’ll be successful with obesity.”

Living healthier longer is a key goal for many of the older residents who participate in a Santa Rosa YMCA fitness class called “Stay Fit Forever.”

“We’re trying,” Sookbin Choy, 67, of Santa Rosa said Monday just before the morning class started. Choy said she likes the class because “it gets your heart beating.”

The benefits of the class include cardiovascular health, strength building, core work and stretching, said Nicole Martinovich, a diabetes prevention program coordinator for the YMCA in Santa Rosa.

“They’re looking to maintain all aspects of their health,” Martinovich said of the older students. “If you notice, most of these people are smiling. That’s community support and fun, which is also important for mental health.”

Kate Konkle, an associate researcher at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, said several new metrics were added to the report this year in an effort to address specific health concerns, such as the growing epidemic of drug overdoses. Since the categories are new, they were not used to determine overall rankings.

In Lake County, the years of potential life lost were 10,600 per 100,000 people, compared to 5,300 for the state. That put the county last in length of life.

Some of those premature deaths were because of drug overdoses. Drug overdose deaths in Lake County were 46 per 100,000, compared to 11 for the state and eight for the country’s top performers.

In overall health outcomes, Lake County ranked 56th out of 57 ranked counties. Among California’s 58 counties, only tiny Alpine County in the Sierra Nevada was not ranked.

Lake County Public Health Officer Dr. Karen Tait said the county does show some improvement in alcohol-impaired driving deaths, preventable hospital stays and diabetic monitoring.

“I think we actually are starting to see some improvements here in Lake County,” she said.

But Tait said rural counties like Lake often face a number of socio-economic challenges defined as “social determinants” in the report. These include unemployment, which in this year’s report was 8.9 percent, compared to 7.5 percent for the state. Another was median household income, $36,300, compared to $61,900 for the state.

“Rural counties often have higher smoking, substance-use and accident rates,” Tait said.

But for some, Lake County offers a positive quality of life that does not appear in the ranking, one that is less stressful than in urban areas that offer more medical services and economic opportunities, Tait said.

“It’s important to acknowledge the values of many people who live here,” she said. “For many of us, it’s not so much the quantity as quality of life.”

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

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