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How Is Denver the 38th Healthiest County in the State?

The County Health Rankings reveal why our high level of fitness doesn't necessarily equate to better health.

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It seems like every day a new report is trying to explain the state of the world in helpful—and sometimes pointless—ways. (Remember when the “Here’s what the electoral map would look like if only X voted” maps went viral?) When I first got an email about the County Health Rankings, an analysis of health and its contributing factors within each American county, I wasn’t sure which category this dataset would fall into. Counties don’t strike me as the best comparison unit, and this report only calculates rankings within each state. That means your number one ranking in health factors—variables that could influence the overall health of a location, such as the amount of binge drinking, the child poverty rate, and the ratio of dentists to residents—gives you bragging rights over every other county in the state, but doesn’t reveal how you compare to the national average.

But then I noticed that Denver County isn’t ranked first in the state, at least in any positive way. In fact, it sits at number 38 for health outcomes (think: the rate of premature death or how many poor mental health days residents have on average per month) and 43 for health factors, out of the 58 Colorado counties that were ranked. This seemed odd to me; you would think a state’s hub—in this case, the capital and the most populous city—would have the greatest amount of resources to help its denizens stay healthy. When I looked at King County, home to Seattle, a city similar in size and demographics to Denver, that theory seemed to hold true: It’s ranked second in health outcomes and first in factors within the state of Washington. In California, which boasts nearly the same number of counties as Colorado, San Francisco County sits at 11th and fifth—not quite as high but still nowhere near as low as Denver. What gives?

After delving further into the data, I pinpointed some of the factors that caused us to land lower on the list:

While this information is interesting, the key is coming up with solutions to solve the problems it reveals. For example, Colorado created the Office of Dropout Prevention and Student Re-Engagement back in 2009 and has launched multiple initiatives to try to increase graduation rates. And it has worked: Back in 2010, when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation first teamed up with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute to release the County Health Rankings, Denver’s high school graduation rate was just 50 percent. But, as the most recent data shows, we still have work to do.

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