TRAVERSE CITY — Leelanau County is the state’s healthiest county, while Kalkaska County is sixth from the bottom.
“Where we live and where we work and where we play really does matter to our health,” said Jenifer Murray, health officer for the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department.
Murray also said that good health is related to more than just clinical care. Other factors play a strong role, including low stress, a good job and enough time and money to exercise and fix a healthy meal.
The state-by-state county ranking was released this week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Health Institute in a national media teleconference.
A county’s "health outcome" is evenly weighted by mortality — the years of life lost due to premature death — and morbidity, which is measured by poor physical and mental health and poor birth outcomes. Kalkaska’s low ranking owes, in part, to a high teen birth rate of 48 per 1,000 females, triple the rate of Leelanau County.
Leelanau and Kalkaska counties are both rural, but their socioeconomic numbers tell deeply contrasting stories of prosperity and poverty.
Leelanau County’s unemployment is the lowest in the five-county region at 8.5 percent, while Kalkaska, once an oil and natural gas boom region, struggles with 11.3 percent joblessness. Leelanau County leads the five-county area with a median income of $51,268. Kalkaska is the lowest at $38,053.
“If someone is unemployed or underemployed, they are going to have riskier behaviors,” said Linda Van Gills, health officer for District Health Department No. 10, which includes Kalkaska. “They don’t have access to health care; it’s just a real challenge.”
On the positive side, Kalkaska and Michigan, overall, are seeing a significant decline in teen pregnancy, Van Gills said.
“We also had good access to recreational facilities, walking trails and good immunization rates,” she said.
Antrim County is similar to Kalkaska in many of its socioeconomic markers, but ranked significantly higher at 45 out of the state’s 82 counties. Wayne County ranked at the bottom.
Grand Traverse and Benzie counties followed closely behind Leelanau County as the seventh and ninth healthiest counties, respectively.
“We’re not surprised. Northern Michigan has always been a great place to live,” said Rose Ann Davis, Grand Traverse County Health Department spokeswoman. “We’re very happy with the ranking, but there’s always room for improvement.”
All five counties, for example, had adult obesity rates of 30 to 31 percent. That reflects Michigan’s national position as the fifth-fattest state.
Despite Leelanau County’s relative prosperity, 18 percent of the children still live in poverty. Almost 30 percent of Leelanau County’s residents are physically inactive. And more than a quarter of the county’s pregnant women smoke — higher than the state average of 17 percent. That’s the same percentage who are uninsured.
“Mainly the uninsured are adults who are poor,” Murray said. “You are talking low-paid jobs, seasonal employment. You have to be dirt poor to get Medicaid, which is why our state is grappling with Medicaid expansion. We need to get those people covered.”
Murray said that Leelanau County’s Family Coordinating Council does an exceptional job of encouraging agencies and churches to ask needy families what they really need.
“And that changes the way people do business,” she said. “Our Glen Lake Reformed Church sits down with the families and asks, ‘What’s going on in your life and how can I help you?’ It’s not just a hand-out.”