Benton and Washington counties in Northwest Arkansas and Saline County in central Arkansas are the state’s healthiest in terms of life expectancy and health care outcomes, according to the Wisconsin Health Institute and the Health Inequality Organization.
Access to health care and the means to afford it are directly linked to life expectancies, more so than genetics or environment according to the two research reports.
In Arkansas that means residents of Northwest Arkansas and in Saline County in central Arkansas have a better chance for a slightly longer life than most of the other places in the state. Saline County has the state’s highest median household income at $55,348 and it ranked second in the health outcomes and longevity in the two studies. Northwest Arkansas counties Benton and Washington median had a combined household income income of $50,788 last year which was 20% higher than statewide. Benton County ranked No. 1 for health care outcomes and longevity and Washington County ranked No. 3.
Benton County had the highest overall scores for health outcomes and factors for longevity, according to the Institute’s county rankings. When looking at premature death rates which accounts for 50% of the weight in the health outcome category, the range across the state was a low 6,200 in Benton County to a high 15,300 in LaFayette County. The rate refers to potential lives lost before age 75 per 100,000 population. Nearly three times as many people die before age 75 in LaFayette County as compared to Benton County. Statewide the premature death rate is 9,100 and the top 10% of the nation has a rate of 5,200.
Second place Saline County had a premature death rate of 7,600 per 100,000 population and the rate in Washington County was slightly better at 6,900. Each county was ranked for its health outcomes and overall life expectancy. Two of the top three performing counties were in Northwest Arkansas.
While Benton County is deemed healthier than many, 17% of the population was categorized in poor or failing health, above the 12% nationally and below 23% statewide. The county also has a 7% low birth rate, below the 9% statewide rate and slightly higher than to U.S. rate of 6%. Next door in Washington County 22% have poor or failing health and in Saline County the rate is just 15%. Low birth rates in these respective counties were 8% each.
Benton County has a 16% child poverty rate and it’s 22% in Washington County, compared to just 13% of the best performing states in the nation. This is a concern and why health professional Dr. Pearl McElfish, associate chancellor for the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences in Fayetteville, is overseeing a working group on community health. McElfish was tasked with organizing the data, comments and ideas harnessed at the Northwest Arkansas Health Care Summit earlier this year. The goal of that summit was to make Northwest Arkansas a healthcare destination. McElfish said three working groups are being assembled at this time in the areas of economic development, workforce needs and community health.
“Our health care providers can continue to build facilities but if they can’t find the doctors and nurses to staff them, what’s the use,” McElfish said. “While there is great wealth in Northwest Arkansas there is still a high degree of poverty and we must have health care safety nets for this demographic. I will be working in this group looking closely at community health issues.”
Of the state’s more populated counties, Pulaski was ranked 11th, Craighead County was 17th, and Sebastian County came in at 19.
The Institute also looked at health factors influencing life expectancy such smoking, obesity, physical inactivity, excessive drinking, access/opportunity to exercise, alcohol-impaired driving accidents, teen births and sexually transmitted diseases.
The study found 19% of adults smoke in Benton and Saline counties, and 23% in Washington County. All were less than 25% statewide but more than the 14% nationally. Obesity affects 28% of Benton County residents, a statistic that has trended down since 2009. Statewide obesity is a big problem affecting more than one in three and it continues to trend upward. Nationally one in four are obese. In Saline County one in three are obese and it’s 29% in Washington County.
Physical inactivity is also declining to 25% down from 28% in 2009 in Benton County. It was 26% in Washington County, 31% in Saline County and 32% statewide. One metric Benton County excels in is access for exercise with 83% compared to just 61% statewide. It was slightly less in Saline and Washington counties at 76% each.
The completion of the 37-mile Razorback Greenway has been deemed a catalyst for a healthier Northwest Arkansas population. McElfish said the infrastructure is there but not everyone in the outlying areas of the region has immediate access to the trail system. She said city investments in sidewalks and other walkable surfaces continues across the region which will likely help to increase access for more residents in the near term.
Excessive use of alcohol affects 16% of Benton County population and the same in Saline County. This is higher than 12% nationally and 14% statewide. Drunk driving related deaths rose to 29% since the Benton county was voted wet in 2014. This goes against downward state and national trends. Arkansas’ alcohol-impaired driving deaths were at 30%, while nationally the rate was 14%, according to the study. Alcohol excesses were slightly worse in Washington County at 17% of the population, while drunk driving related accidents were 38%.
Incidents of sexually transmitted disease is a growing concern in Benton County with 240 newly diagnosed chlamydia cases per 100,000 population. This compared to 134 cases nationally and less than half the statewide rate of 523.8 cases. Washington County had more sexually transmitted cases at 534 per 100,000 population. Saline County had just 244 new cases.
Teen births per 1,000 females ages 15-19 were 42 in Benton County and 40 in Washington County, lower than the 44 nationally and 53 statewide. Saline County had an even lower teen birth rate of 34 per 1,000. The study also found 18% of the Benton County population was uninsured, lower than the 19% statewide but more than 11% nationally. The uninsured rate was 21% in Washington and a low 15% in Saline County.
When it comes to access to care, Saline County has slightly more doctors, dentists and mental health care providers per 100,000 people than in Northwest Arkansas. All three counties have better access than much of the state or nation. When it comes to preventable hospital stays per 1,000 medicare enrollees, the top three Arkansas counties have work to do as they lag the state and national numbers of 53 days and 66 days respectively.
LIFE EXPECTANCY GAPS
A separate report by the Health Inequality Organization found Benton County residents have a life expectancy rate of 80.1 years, slightly higher than 79.1 years in Washington County. Saline, Pulaski and Faulkner counties in central Arkansas had an average life expectancy between 78.3 and 79.1 years, which was about the same as Sebastian, Crawford and Scott counties.
In the Jonesboro metro the life expectancy is the lowest in the state at 77.9 years or less, according to the HIO study. Overall, the Natural State ranked in among the bottom nine along with Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Kansas and Nevada brought up the rear. Conversely the states with the longest life expectancies are California, New York and Vermont ranging between 80.1 and 80.7 years.
The HIO study looked at gaps between rich and poor and found the richest American men live 15 years long the poorest men, while wealthy American women outlive their poorer counterparts by a decade. The study found the gaps between the rich and the poor grew rapidly over time. From 2001-2014, the richest Americans gained approximately 3 years in longevity, but the poorest Americans experienced no gains.
The gains in lifespan for the rich are the equivalent of curing cancer; the Center for Disease Control estimates that eliminating all cancer deaths would increase average lifespans by 3.2 years.