Maryland ranks 21st in nation for health

State improves in smoking and poverty, while infectious disease, violent crime and infant mortality remain challenges

December 07, 2010|By Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland again got a middle-of-the-pack ranking among states for the health of its residents, according to a report issued Tuesday from health research and advocacy groups that looked at a host of government measures and private data.

Maryland was unmoved from last year's ranking at 21st by the United Health Foundation, the American Public Health Association and Partnership for Prevention. To make its ranking, report authors assess behaviors, public and health policies, community and environmental conditions and clinical care data.

The state's strengths were a low number of smokers and children in poverty and a ready supply of primary care physicians. But the high number of new cases of infectious disease, violent crime and infant mortality remained challenges, according to the report, in its 21st year.

"The goal of the report is to make community leaders, health departments and individuals aware of the healthiness levels in their states," Dr. Manuel A. Selva Jr., who has been advising the United Health Foundation for the past five years, said yesterday. "Over time, we can see those who improve and those who don't and what is working."

Selva said Vermont has been the healthiest state for four years in a row by reducing the number of smokers and the prevalence of heart disease and infant mortality through statewide programs to monitor at-risk populations. Ranked last was Mississippi, which has a high number of people living in poverty and without proper medical care.

In general, Selva said all the states faced rising obesity rates — more than 26 percent of Americans are now obese and that has led to a host of health problems, including high numbers of people living with diabetes and heart disease. Estimates show that 50 percent could be obese by 2020.

But obesity rates can be improved with education, better access to good food and exercise, he said.

According to the report, Maryland ranks 24th highest in terms of obesity rates, and health disparities persist. More than 36 percent of blacks are obese, while about 24 percent of whites are.

Selva said there are promising signs in Maryland. It's now sixth in terms of the number of nonsmokers. And the report also shows over time that Maryland's rate of preventable hospitalization has decreased among Medicare enrollees, and deaths from cardiovascular disease and cancer are down.

Officials in Baltimore have launched several programs aimed at improving public health. They include programs to reduce infant deaths, teen pregnancies and smoking. Other efforts center on making healthy food available to residents, monitoring blood pressure of at-risk populations and cutting HIV infections.

"Public health research consistently shows us the places where we live, learn, work and play greatly impact our life expectancy," said Dr. Oxiris Barbot, Baltimore's health commissioner. "By improving access to resources and opportunities that promote and enhance health, we aim to reduce Baltimore's high infant mortality and teen birth rates, prevent the spread of HIV and keep young people from smoking."

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