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Health survey gives Lake Co. mixed diagnosis

On one hand, the newest County Health Rankings release paints a dire picture for Lake County. The county ranks just 83rd out of the 87 counties in Minnesota in one major measure, overall health outcomes.

On the other hand, residents seem to be relatively healthy compared to the state average: The county ranks 28th in the other major measure, health factors.

The results are on par with previous years' rankings for Lake County, but officials stress that residents shouldn't read too much into the rankings.

"It's a broad snapshot in time," said Michelle Backes-Fogelberg, public health supervisor for Lake County. "We are a county with a small population, and a lot of times percentages can be skewed a little bit."

The County Health Rankings, released annually since 2010 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, measure two major areas of public health.

The health outcomes category measures premature death rates and morbidity factors, including poor physical and mental health and low birth weight.

The health factors category includes a much broader sampling of issues that can affect health, ranging from obesity and smoking to high school graduation and unemployment to sexually transmitted infections and violent crime.

Although Lake County, with a population of just 10,866 at the 2010 census, is among the more rural counties in the state, the data provides some insight into specific health issues for county officials.

"It certainly does help us identify some factors that we need to be working on," Backes-Fogelberg said. "Working on those specifics I think will give us better health outcomes in the future."

Backes-Fogelberg pointed to a community health needs assessment conducted by the county last September that found obesity and alcohol, drug and tobacco use to be the primary health concerns for Lake County residents.

The County Health Rankings release puts the obesity rate at 30 percent in the county, slightly higher than the 26 percent rate statewide. The rankings did not have enough data to estimate alcohol and tobacco use in the county.

But the county has already been working on the health factors and is involved with the Minnesota Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP). The Lake County Health and Human Services department has been working with the Lake Superior School District on three health improvement programs: healthier foods in schools, active transportation and safe routes to school.

"We're in a health care crisis of our own making," said Forrest Johnson, SHIP coordinator for Lake County. "The foods we eat and the fact that we're living more sedentary lifestyles, I think the connection is absolute."

However, Johnson said he believes Lake County residents are starting to see the importance of living a healthy lifestyle. And working with schools is a good way to begin implementing those changes, he said.

"It's a matter of educating people and making things available to them," he said. "Schools are good at selling cookies and pies and frozen pizzas to raise money. Why don't we do walkathons or community cleanups and take donations for those? There is a whole host of things you can do a little differently."

Lake County isn't alone in some of the struggles that smaller counties can face in the rankings. Its neighbor to the east, Cook County, was not even included in the first two years of the rankings. But the county has made a significant leap from last year, now topping the rankings in northeastern Minnesota, checking in at 29th in health outcomes and 23rd in health factors.

Lake, Cook, and St. Louis counties have traditionally ranked in the bottom half of the rankings, something that officials attribute to poverty rates above the state average.

"Where we live has an effect on our health," Patrick Remington, associate dean of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said at a news conference last month.

Lake County officials hope to follow Cook County's move up the rankings.

"It takes time; it's a cultural change," Backes-Fogelberg said. "We have to keep raising awareness and provide education for our residents so they can make healthier choices."