- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Mortality rates are rising across the U.S. and more Americans are dying earlier because of drugs and heart disease, despite vast differences in health quality across state lines, according to an annual ranking of the healthiest states.

The United Health Foundation, which has compiled its 28th annual report, said that the uptick in the premature death rate and increases in cardiovascular and drug-related deaths continue to be a concern.

Drug overdoses rose 7 percent within the past year, and deaths from cardiovascular disease increased by 2 percent since 2015. Overall, more Americans are dying before the age of 75, with that figure increasing by 3 percent since 2015.

The report, “America’s Health Rankings,” is one of the longest-running health analyses and provides a snapshot of dozens of health-related factors on at the state and national levels.

For the first year ever, Massachusetts as the No. 1 healthiest state, pushing Hawaii to No. 2 after five years in the top spot. They were followed by Vermont, Utah and Connecticut.

The Bay State ranked high for having the most residents with health insurance relative to the population, a low prevalence of obesity and a high number of physicians and mental health professionals.

Yet even the highest ranking states were not immune to negative trends in mortality. Drug deaths in Massachusetts increased 69 percent since 2012; in Utah, cardiovascular deaths rose by 10 percent.

The rankings are based on dozens of measures, including topics related to behavior, economics, education and the environment.

Data from the District of Columbia were included in the report but not the rankings.

The five unhealthiest states are Mississippi, ranked No. 50, followed by Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and West Virginia, at No. 46.

The report’s authors point out that high rates of obesity, smoking and number of children in poverty greatly contributed to the low ranking for Louisiana and Mississippi, challenges that make it difficult for those states increase their ranking.

A spokesman for United Health Foundation said the importance of the report is that compares improvements at the state and national level.

Positive health trends recorded this year include a decline in smoking rates, more people with health insurance and improvements in preventable hospitalization among medicare enrollees. Local governments and community health leaders are encouraged to learn from others’ successes to improve their states’ rankings.

Utah, for example, was one of the most improved states — jumping from eighth to fourth place — for reducing air pollution and increasing immunizations among children.

Likewise, Florida jumped four spots to No. 32 for improvements in lowering the percentage of children in poverty and improving access to mental health services.

North Dakota, however, declined the most of any state, dropping seven places to No. 18 for its poor rates in smoking, salmonella infection and immunizations among children.

Nationally, smoking rates dropped from 21.2 percent to 17 percent over the past five years and only 9 percent of the population is without health insurance, attributed to the Affordable Care Act, the authors wrote.

Even though obesity rates are at an all-time high (29.9 percent), state-level data show improvements.

Kansas decreased its population of obese adults from 34.2 percent to 31.2 percent. Obesity rates also declined slightly in Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Overall, diabetes prevalence increased from 9.9 percent to 10.5 percent, but it is on the decline in the District of Columbia, South Dakota, Idaho, Alaska, Colorado and Kansas. Meanwhile, Kentucky, Alabama and West Virginia showed obesity rate increases.

The U.S. still struggles to improve upon low birth weight and infant mortality. Between 8 percent and 8.2 percent of newborns are born underweight, a figure that has remained steady for the past 10 years.

Infant mortality rates are also much higher in the U.S. than other developed countries, with 5.9 deaths per 100,000 live births in the U.S. compared to five or fewer deaths per 100,000 in the majority of developed countries.

“This report is vital for gauging how the health of each state’s population changes by year and decade,” the authors wrote.

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