Holiday seconds, please

Posted on December 17, 2010. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

I was enjoying a bite of whipped cream-laden pumpkin pie when I saw the headline.

“Arkansas ranks third unhealthiest state,” it read. The news story was announcing America’s Health Rankings 2010 state assessment.

In keeping with the spirit of the report, rather than setting my holiday pastry aside, I savored the finishing of it before diving into the data on the America’s Health Rankings website.

AHR does a pretty thorough analysis. The assessment includes five core measures—behaviors, community & environment, public & health policies, clinical care and outcomes—containing between three and seven components each. States are ranked in each component and then tallied for an overall ranking. Across the total spectrum of 22 component areas, Arkansas landed 40th or below in 15 of them.

As if being named 48th worst overall wasn’t bad enough, we also had the largest drop of any state from 2009. Last year, Arkansas sported a much more respectable 40th ranking, which represented our highest score in the past 20 years. (We achieved that level only once before, in 1993.)

Stomaching the biggest negative movement on the chart is painful, especially since the rankings are dynamic. There are absolute values for the individual assessment items, but where Arkansas falls in relation to other states also depends on how the other states have improved or declined in their own core measures.

After pouring a glass of eggnog, I sat back down to look up neighboring states. I started with Mississippi, hoping its numbers might make me feel better. I was half-right.

Not only did the Magnolia State finish dead last this year, but it’s been 50th for nine of the last 10 years; the highest it’s ever been in the past 20 years was 48th. Still, Mississippi hadn’t gained any ground, so we can’t blame our drop on its rise.

I next looked up Louisiana. If any state would brim with spit-in-your eye indignity about being ranked on a bunch of health indicators, it’s the one that adopts “Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez” as a motto during Mardi Gras.

Bingo! Louisiana sat at 49th on the AHR list, down from 47th in 2009. Like Mississippi, it was very near the bottom in most of the death statistics: premature, infant mortality, cancer and cardiovascular.

Next I went to Tennessee’s data, and darned if we hadn’t beaten the Volunteers last year in the rankings. But Tennessee improved this year, moving from 44th to 42nd, meaning it was one of the contiguous culprits contributing to our decline.

Tennessee even finished first in the country in one category (immunization of children), which also happened to be the only area in which Arkansas ranked 50th. It’s embarrassing, but also puzzling, that the mere span of the Mississippi River can separate such disparity.

Moving along, I crossed the old Union lines to observe Missouri’s numbers. Sure enough, the foreboding I felt in heading north was justified. Ranked 39th in 2010, that’s the lowest showing the Show Me State has ever had, and its 20-year trend displayed a steady descent from 25th place back in 1990.

Rather than its healthiness rubbing off on us, it looked like Missouri has been adopting some of our poor habits, like low immunization and high obesity rates.

Looking westward, while Oklahoma’s sinking trend line isn’t as steep as Missouri’s, the Okies have little to celebrate this Christmas. After starting in 1990 at 32nd and never having been below 45th in the 1990s, Oklahoma has only crested that mark sparingly this decade. In 2010, it landed at 46th, another sad displacement for Arkansas, as Oklahoma improved three notches from 49th last year.

Finally, Texas is no Lone Star when it comes to health assessments. It took Arkansas’ place at 40th this year after being 41st in 2009 and 40th in 2008. It shares some of the same challenges we have, too, like a high percentage of children in poverty and preventable hospitalizations.

Grabbing a handful of glazed almonds, I figured I’d check out the stats on the nation’s No. 1 healthy state. Just for kicks, I used the comparison feature on the AHR site to line up defending champ Vermont side-by-side with Arkansas.

In 12 of the 22 categories, Vermont was ranked among the top five. It was first in high school graduation rates and prenatal care; the second lowest in violent crime; third best in public health funding and primary care physicians; had the fourth fewest in children in poverty, lack of health insurance, infectious disease and premature death; and was fifth best in prevalence of obesity and infant mortality.

Arkansas only appeared in the top 10 once. Our low “prevalence of binge drinking” score left us at seventh place nationally for the sixth straight year.

As a state, we lost the most ground in high school graduation rate, immunization coverage and violent crime (which is up 22 percent in Arkansas since 2004). Sounds like the start of a good New Year’s Resolution list for 2011.

Sugar cookie, anyone?

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