Gila County residents die sooner and teens get pregnant quicker than anywhere else in Arizona, according to a new report.
Gila County ranks as the unhealthiest in the state based on a combination of smoking, lack of exercise, vehicle crash deaths, inadequate social support, obesity, child poverty and teen pregnancy.
But Gila County does have one thing going for it: the environment. The area has cleaner air, fewer fast food restaurants and more recreational facilities than the rest of the state, according to the third annual County Health Rankings released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute.
The study ranked more than 3,000 counties in America according to a variety of health measures using government data.
Many things factor into a community’s overall health, including where we live, how we are taught, work and play. While Gila County ranks at the bottom of measures — projections for future health place the county somewhere in the middle of the pack.
Holly Crump, health program coordinator with Eastern Area Health Education Center (EAHEC) and prevention specialist with the Pinal-Gila Council for Senior Citizens, said health and prevention education is severely lacking in the community.
Although Yuma and Santa Cruz counties rank poorly in physical environment, their mortality rates are low — the reverse of Gila County.
Crump said she has worked with health professionals in Yuma County and seen a notable difference in the health outlook.
“There is a focus and collaboration within the community on health,” she said. “They have so much outreach. They have so much motivation and collaboration going on.”
For Gila County to get in shape, doctors and residents need to change their way of thinking.
“We need to see more bicyclists, more walkers, we need to see more examples of healthy people,” she said. “We don’t see it modeled.”
That may stem from the county’s large number of senior citizens who are traditionally less active.
But Crump said it doesn’t have to be that way. Some senior citizens move to the area to live out their remaining days and so demand a lot of services.
“We cater to them without them giving back to the community,” she said. “We are not supporting those people we are asking to support us.”
In Colorado, Crump said there was a tax credit program for seniors who volunteered in schools. Helping out benefits both retirees and children.
However, Gila County’s overall poor health isn’t just due to the area’s large population of seniors, although that may contribute to the county having the highest death rate in the state, according to the County Health Rankings report.
The data shows Gila County also has some of the highest rates of tobacco and alcohol use.
Moreover, our rate of stroke deaths, respiratory diseases and overall cancer rate is high, says the Department of Health Services.
Sexual health is also in disrepair. Gila County has a consistently high teen pregnancy rate (40 per 1,000 females 19 or younger) — far above the state average and nearly four times the national benchmark.
In addition, the county suffers the second highest infant mortality rate in the state.
Most of women giving birth in the county are unmarried (62 per 100 births) and most are on AHCCCS.
Possible solutions include greater prenatal care, increased abstinence from smoking during pregnancy and sex education for teens, although Payson schools don’t offer sexual education programs.
The community suffers from a shortage of health care providers and has above-average health care costs.
Add in the state’s highest vehicle crash deaths rate and an equally high injury death rate from falls and the county clearly has a lot of issues to overcome.
Some of this stems from the area’s demographics. The county is primarily rural, with lower than average household incomes. Studies have shown a link between income and health status.
Most Gila County students qualify for free and reduced school lunches, have lower-than-average high school and college graduation rates. We also have a high rate of physical inactivity and more violent crime — especially domestic violence.
The Health Planning Report for Gila County by the Arizona Association of Community Health Centers cited a lack of knowledge about healthy lifestyles.
“... being grossly overweight, having babies as teenagers and smoking are community norms,” the study found.
Crump, who is the former director of the Arizona Rural Women’s Health Network, said the data solidifies her belief that women are key.
“Women start, steer and stop family health,” she said. “It has been proven over and over again.”