Region lags state in key health segments
When it comes to living healthy lifestyles, it turns out Mesa County has a long way to go in a number of key areas.
That’s what is revealed in a major community health study created by the Mesa County Health Department and released earlier this year. Called “Healthy Mesa County,” it’s a huge collaborative undertaking involving the county, the city of Grand Junction, Colorado Mesa University and all the major local health providers and insurers.
In a host of health care segments — obesity, smoking, cancer, suicide and heart disease, among others — the statistics in the study bear out that Mesa County significantly trails the rest of the state in overcoming a number of obstacles to good health.
Diseases of the heart and arteries are the biggest cause of death worldwide, and it’s no different in Mesa County. But with 159.9 per 100,000 county residents afflicted with some sort of cardiovascular disease, the county has room to improve when compared with the state number of 131.2 for every 100,000 Coloradans.
Related data show that more than 30 percent of Mesa County residents have high blood cholesterol levels — more than double the statewide percentage of 14 percent.
When compared with the rest of the state, Mesa County has similar rates of cancers within the population; it’s the second-leading cause of death in the county.
But with three of the most common forms of cancer — lung, female breast and prostate cancers — more Mesa County residents are diagnosed with these diseases than their Colorado counterparts. More people per 100,000 have lung cancer, 67 to 52.1; more women have breast cancer, 136.6 versus 125.9; and more men have prostate cancer, 201.9 versus 160.6.
According to the data, diabetes — having a raised level of glucose in the blood — is trending upward in Mesa County. In the 2009-10 time frame, 7.2 percent of Mesa County residents were diagnosed with diabetes, compared to the state number of 5.6 percent.
The steady trend line in the study, which began recording Mesa County’s diabetes number in 2003-04 at just 2.5 percent of the local population, shows a doubling of the diabetes population over the past decade.
The broader trend of diabetes being seen in younger people is mirrored in Mesa County — School District 51 reported a rate of 1 in 250 students with Type 1, insulin-dependent diabetes. The state rate is 1 in 300.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the term arthritis covers more than 100 rheumatic diseases and conditions that affect joints and surrounding tissues. In Mesa County, nearly a full third are afflicted with joint or related inflammation, at 30 percent. For Colorado in total, 23.9 percent of the population is diagnosed with arthritis.
The county study calls obesity a “national epidemic” and notes that statistically, Mesa County is not far apart from the state in terms of the number of adults 18 and older that are obese — 23 percent in the county compared to 20.1 percent statewide.
But reflecting the larger trend, the number of obese people in the county has been steadily climbing since 2003, when 18.1 percent of Mesa County residents were diagnosed as obese.
While the county health data indicates that Mesa County is not far off from the rest of the state in terms of tobacco use — including the percentage of adults who smoke and the percentage of children who ride in cars or live in homes with someone who smokes — the most recent data show a problematic trend.
The study’s 2011 data — though slightly skewed based on inconsistent collection methods — estimates that more than 25 percent of Mesa County adults smoke cigarettes, versus an estimated Colorado rate in 2011 of 18.3 percent.
Even if skewed slightly higher, the rate still is well off a federal initiative called Healthy People 2020, which has a target rate of just 12 percent of the population lighting up.
Maternal and child health
There are some distinct differences between Mesa County and the rest of the state, specifically when it comes to maternity, according to the study.
Mesa County’s teen mortality rate — or the number of pregnant teens between the ages of 15 and 19, per 1,000 — in 2011 was 36.6, compared to Colorado’s rate of 27.8 per 1,000.
For Latinas, the local numbers are even starker: Mesa County counted 73.4 Latina teen mothers per 1,000, versus a state number of 55.2.
Further, the study notes that more Mesa County women smoked cigarettes prior to getting pregnant — 35.5 percent versus 22.1 percent statewide.
Mesa County mothers also were behind the state percentage in terms of gaining an appropriate amount of weight during their pregnancies — 21 percent versus 30.9 percent across Colorado, according to the most recent data.
The study calls suicide “a significant public health issue for Colorado and Mesa County,” but a recent spike in Mesa County’s suicide rate is especially notable.
After a number of years of steady decline, the study pegs Mesa County’s 2011 suicide rate at 34.4 per 100,000 deaths, a five-year high. That’s significantly worse than the statewide number of 17.4 and a national number of 12.2.
County plan moving forward
Jeff Kuhr, executive director of the Mesa County Health Department, said the community health snapshot showed “we have areas where we did well. We have areas where we need improvement.”
The comprehensive study led the Health Department to develop a key five-priority strategy, which focuses on “behavioral determinants” — or rather, addressing the root causes of why people lead unhealthy lives when they do.
The county’s improvement plan includes focus on parenting, emotional and social well-being, access to health care, the built environment (walkability of the community, mass transit, etc.) and building a sense of community.
Kuhr used obesity as an example of how he thinks this approach can have a significant impact.
“Obesity itself has a direct link to some of the things in the report — areas that we need improvement on,” he said. “But if you drill down a little bit and ask, ‘What are the behaviors that cause obesity?’ ‘And what are the determinants of those behaviors?’”
By addressing what causes negative behaviors — as opposed to creating new and direct programs for afflictions and diseases — you can “actually have an impact on the behaviors that lead to those adverse health outcomes,” Kuhr said.
Collaboration is a key as well for the county, as often there is overlap among agencies striving for the same goals.
“What we don’t want to do is introduce new programs. We want to recognize what exists and try to interconnect everything,” Kuhr said, adding that better and more meaningful communication as well as rallying the community is key to change.
“Let’s build coalitions,” he said.