Archived Story

Berrien County in poor health

Published 10:41am Friday, February 19, 2010

By AARON MUELLER
Niles Daily Star

Berrien County ranks in the bottom half of the state in a national study released Wednesday by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, which ranked the health of 82 counties in Michigan.

The report, which was based on data between 2002 and 2008, ranked Berrien 59th in health outcomes and 55th in health factors. The study was done for each state in the country but did not make comparisons from state to state.

Nicki Britten, epidemiologist at the Berrien County Health Department, said she is not surprised by the rankings.

“I work with the data day in and day out, so I’m not surprised,” she said. “We have a large minority population and large low-income and low-education population that unfortunately are associated with poor health.”

Britten, who has yet to look carefully at the report, said it could prove to be a helpful study but it depends on where the data came from and how the rankings were determined.

The biggest health issue facing Berrien, according to Britten, is chronic disease caused by poor diet, lack of physical activity and weight status.

“Hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity. At the root of that is poor diet and lack of physical exercise,” she said.

Two out of three adults in Berrien County are obese or overweight, according to the most recent numbers from the Berrien County Health Department.

To combat this issue, in 2008 the health department introduced the We Can! Healthy Berrien initiative, which provides programs for families focused on healthy diet, exercise and reduced screen time.

But Britten thinks more still needs to be done.

“There are a lot of small efforts through the county,” she said. “The problem of addressing these issues is that they require a lot of resources that just don’t exist. Since we’re in survival mode in terms of the economy, it’s incredibly hard to find grant funding.”

Britten also said residents who are struggling financially have trouble gaining access to healthy food and regular doctor visits.

“There are a lot of people who are of the mindset that people who are obese haven’t tried hard enough,” she said. “It’s more of a complicated issue. We’ve had a difficult time finding the balance between individual responsibility and the environment we live in and how it influences the decisions we make.”

The Berrien County Health Department plans to examine the report more thoroughly and determine the biggest concerns and how to address them.

The people behind the report hope it will encourage the nation to become more health conscious.
“For the first time, people have a tool to help identify what is making people in every county unhealthy,” Patrick Remington, associate dean for public health at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said in a press release. “We hope this kind of check-up will mobilize community leaders to take action and invest in programs and policy changes that make their counties healthier places to live.”

Southwest Michigan Health Rankings
Health Outcomes
14. Allegan
31. Barry
37. Kalamazoo
46. VanBuren
59. Berrien
63. Cass
69. St. Joseph
75. Calhoun

Health Factors
13. Kalamazoo
15. Allegan
18. Barry
47. VanBuren
50. Cass
55. Berrien
58. St. Joseph
73. Calhoun

What does this mean?
Health outcomes
The study measures two types of healthy outcomes: how long people live (mortality) and how healthy people are while alive (morbidity). The study measures number of premature deaths, birth outcomes and health-related quality of life.

Health factors
The study looks at four types of health factors: health behaviors (tobacco, diet, exercise, alcohol use); clinical care (access to care and quality of care); social and economic factors (education, employment, income, community safety) and physical environment (air quality, access to healthy foods).

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