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Originally published Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 12:35 PM

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Report finds San Juan is Wash.'s healthiest county

A report released Wednesday on wellness in nearly all the nation's counties says San Juan County is Washington's healthiest.

Associated Press

SEATTLE —

A report released Wednesday on wellness in nearly all the nation's counties says San Juan County is Washington's healthiest.

The director of San Juan County's Department of Health and Community Services credited the healthy lifestyle of county residents as one reason for the ranking. But John Manning also acknowledged the self-selected nature of the community's 16,000 citizens.

"Folks with chronic diseases who need regular medical care tend to move off the island," Manning said. He said county residents also tend to have higher than average incomes and higher than average educations, which are both associated with better health.

The rankings were based on data from vital statistics and government health surveys.

Some of the factors the report looked at include premature deaths, low birth-weight babies, obesity, unemployment, high school graduation rates and pollution.

The second annual report from the University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation compared counties within each state. In Washington, the healthiest counties after San Juan are Kittitas, Whitman, Island and King.

San Juan County's small population also helped it's rankings for this report, because in some categories the numbers were too small to be statistically significant, and in other cases the numbers just weren't available for researchers to look at. For example, San Juan County has rather high motor vehicle crash numbers for its size, but the researchers did not include those numbers in its report, Manning said.

He also disagreed with some of the more negative aspects of the report, such as the assessment that only 80 percent of San Juan County residents have access to healthy food, because there are few grocery stores on some of the less developed islands.

Air pollution numbers showed San Juan has more "particulate matter days" than the Washington average, which Manning found hard to believe.

"Everybody I know who comes here says how nice and fresh the air is," he said.

The report finds the least healthy of Washington's 39 counties to be another small one, Ferry County, in part for some of the same reasons San Juan County is considered the healthiest: Ferry County in rural northeastern Washington is very small - about 7,500 residents - so some of the statistics seem more dramatic; its education levels are lower than San Juan County but not dramatically so.

Ferry County does a higher poverty rate - 32 percent of children live in poverty - and a higher unemployment rate - 12.7 percent - than the state average. The county has a higher than state average rate of premature death, which is defined as people dying before age 75 of preventable diseases. It also has a higher than average motor vehicle crash death rate, and many fewer doctors than in other places in Washington. Most of its other county health statistics are similar to rest of the state.

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Ferry's surrounding rural counties - Okanogan, Stevens and Pend Oreille - also fell near the bottom of the health rankings. The counties just to Ferry's south did about 10 places better in the state country rankings.

Researchers who worked on the national report said, in general, that rural communities mostly were ranked lowest across the nation and proximity to bigger cities with higher paying - and more plentiful - jobs tended to translate into healthier residents. In Washington, San Juan County seemed to buck this trend, but Ferry County fit right in.

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Online:

http://www.countyhealthrankings.org

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