Do you live in one of America’s healthiest communities?

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published April 24, 2019

Key Takeaways

Imagine a healthy community…You will likely visualize a population of exercisers with lower prevalence of chronic disease. Indeed, these factors do play an important role in U.S. News & World Report and the Aetna Foundation’s recent rankings of healthiest US communities.

In their rubric, U.S. News crunched data from 3,000 US counties, based on 81 metrics across 10 health and health-related categories, to come up with 500 healthiest communities. These were the top 10 categories:

  • Population health, including access to care, and quality of mental health, and health behaviors, prevalence of health conditions, and outcomes
  • Equity, including education, social, and income, as well as health disparity
  • Education, including achievement, infrastructure, and participation
  • Economy, including employment, income, and opportunity
  • Housing, including affordability, capacity, and quality
  • Food and nutrition, including availability of food, and nutrition of food
  • Environment, including air and water, natural environment, and natural hazards
  • Public safety, including crime, injuries, and public safety capacity
  • Community vitality, including community stability, and social capital
  • Infrastructure, including community layout and transportation

Let’s examine the ratings of these health communities in different ways, and look at some novel findings gleaned from the data.

Key health measures

U.S. News highlighted three key health measures—access to health care, low cancer prevalence, and mental health—and broke out the rankings to provide the Top 5 communities that scored highest in each category.

Access to health care

  1. Suffolk County, MA
  2. Olmsted County, MN
  3. Montour County, PA
  4. Ohio County, WV
  5. Johnson County, IA

Low cancer prevalence

  1. Ziebach County, SD
  2. Culberson County, TX
  3. Presidio County, TX
  4. Garfield County, WA
  5. Hudspeth County, TX

Mental health

  1. Manassas Park City, VA
  2. Cherry County, NE
  3. Tripp County, SD
  4. Honolulu County, HI
  5. Santa Clara County, CA

What’s America’s healthiest state?

You might guess that a bigger state such as California would have the most communities rated as “healthiest,” but this is not the case. Iowa took top honors in the Healthiest Communities rankings overall, with 62 counties among the top 500 healthiest communities. Specifically, Iowa ranks among the top 10 states for 4 of the 10 broad categories analyzed, including housing and population. Moreover, Iowa's best-performing community, Bremer County, is best in walkability and low toxic emissions.

Health conditions and life expectancy

Certain trends were noticed in the assessment. First, of the 81 metrics in the study, life expectancy was most closely correlated with diabetes prevalence. Summit County, CO, for instance, boasted the longest life expectancy of 86.8 years, and had the fourth lowest prevalence of diabetes in the country (4.1%).

Second, a powerful link between low self-reported mental health and high smoking rates was observed. For instance, residents of the Midwest have low rates of both. Nebraska only averages 26 deaths by suicide, alcohol, and/or drug overdose per 100,000 persons.

Third, heightened rates of poverty—measured by median household income—are tied to poorer mental health and increased rates of smoking, according to the data.

Green spaces and personal health

In a recent study, researchers from Norwich Medical School, Norwich, UK, found that exposure to green spaces, such as parks and forests, decreased the risk for diabetes, heart disease, preterm birth, premature death, high blood pressure, and stress. People who have homes near green spaces have more opportunities for physical activity and socializing. Furthermore, the diversity of bacteria present in natural areas may boost the immune system and fight inflammation.

America’s healthiest communities

With an eye toward green spaces, let’s look at the verdant offerings of the top 10 healthiest communities in the United States.

10. Howard County, MD

Howard County is located in the Piedmont Plateau region of central Maryland, in between Baltimore and Washington, DC. The picturesque landscape mostly consists of rolling hills. Howard County is home to 38 parks, including Blandair Regional Park, which boasts the newest in sports technology: synthetic turf multipurpose fields, synthetic ball fields, press boxes, and bleachers, along with playgrounds, pavilions, and tennis courts.

9. Delaware County, OH

Delaware County covers an area of 457 square miles just north of Columbus. It’s home to 11 parks, such as Shale Hollow Park and Deer Haven Park, and offers access to various trails for exercise, as well as opportunities for canoeing and kayaking. A variety of habitats exist in the park system, including woodland, prairie, meadow, stream, and wetland.

8. Carver County, MN

Located in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, Carver County is bordered by the Minnesota River. In the county, there are six parks, including the Minnesota River Bluffs Regional Trail, which is a 12-mile trail along an old railroad route. The trail offers vantages of Shady Oak Lake, Miller Park, Riley Lake Park, and the forested hills surrounding the Minnesota River. Each year, countless residents enjoy biking, hiking, and jogging along the trails.

7. Hamilton County, IN

Hamilton County, one of the fastest growing counties in the nation, offers its residents 10 parks in its wide vicinity. Specifically, Strawtown Koteewi Park is more than 750 acres, and three other parks in Hamilton County are over 100 acres in size. In addition to terrestrial exercise, residents of Hamilton County enjoy various watersports thanks to the county’s two man-made reservoirs. Hamilton County is often referred to as the “playground of Indianapolis.”

6.  Teton County, WY

Teton County is famous for its diverse wildlife, scenic landscapes, and ideal skiing conditions. Teton County is home to the Jackson Hole ski area, the Grand Teton National Park, and 40% of Yellowstone National Park’s total area, including almost 97% of its water area (largely in Yellowstone Lake).

5. Broomfield County, CO

Many of these healthiest communities tend to clump together geographically, and Broomfield County is no different. Broomfield County is in the Denver metropolitan area, and is home to more than 281 miles of trails, 700 acres of developed parks, and 45 playgrounds. The county has 16 acres of available outdoor active living space per every 1,000 citizens.

4. Loudoun County, VA

Loudoun County is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from Falls Church, VA (#3). Speaking of hopping, skipping, and jumping, these are all things you can do in the 40 parks that dot this 521-square mile area nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In addition to more typical outdoor activities such as biking, running, and hiking, other active pastimes enjoyed in Loudoun County include ziplining through the treetops and paddling in the Potomac River. 3

3. Falls Church, VA

The city of Falls Church (an independent county equivalent) is only a few miles from the US capital. Although only 2 square miles, the city offers access to 13 parks in which residents can walk, run, bike, hike, and play. One park of particular interest is the Washington and Old Dominion Trail (W&OD), which offers 45 miles of paved path that was once railroad line. The trail provides an endless expanse of area for visitors to walk, skate, and bike. Along the trail, there are numerous work-out stations and benches.

2. Los Alamos County, NM

Los Alamos is located in the mountains of northern New Mexico on the Pajarito Plateau, about 90 miles north of Albuquerque. This area is known as “big pine” country, with a temperate four-season climate. Los Alamos County is home to 13 parks and offers plenty of hiking and biking trails. Skiing is available at Pajarito Ski Resort. One park is White Rock Canyon, which averages 1,000 feet in depth, and proffers spectacular views, rough terrain, and seasonal streams for exploration.

1. Douglas County, CO

Taking the number one spot as America’s healthiest community is Douglas County, which lies between Denver and Colorado Springs, nestled near the Rocky Mountains. About 150,000 acres of Pike National Forest, Roxborough State Park, Castlewood Canyon State Park, and the Chatfield State Recreation Area are open to outdoor activities and fitness. Furthermore, the county offers hundreds of miles of trails for biking, hiking, and horseback riding.

Many factors play into the overall health of a community. But of note is that the most healthy communities seem to have plenty of wide-open, green spaces. It seems that access to these spaces is good for maintaining good physical and mental health for community members. So—even if you don’t live in one of the Top 10 healthiest communities in the country—take note of your area’s natural resources and green spaces. And get out there!

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter