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Annual Rankings Show Health Disparities Remain Among Kansas Counties

New county health rankings tell the same old story in Kansas.

The southeastern corner of Kansas remains the state’s least healthy region, according to the rankings released Wednesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

However, the Kansas county at the bottom of the list — Wyandotte — is next door to Johnson County, the state’s top performer.

Gianfranco Pezzino, senior fellow and strategy team leader at the Kansas Health Institute, says the big story in the annual rankings is the disparity from county to county.

“We have deep, deep differences among the poorest and the richest counties, and so as a consequence also among the healthiest and the least healthy counties,” Pezzino says.

He sees two main factors causing the variation among counties.

“The two best predictors of good or poor health are economic situation and education, and those two are very much linked to each other,” Pezzino says.

People with less education are more likely to have jobs that don’t provide economic security, he says, and that leads to what some researchers call “toxic stress.” As a result, they’re more likely to make lifestyle choices — smoking, for example — that are less healthy.

“The cumulative effect of living a stressful life really takes a toll on people,” Pezzino says. “And when you are poor, that toll is even bigger. You are under continuous stress. Once again, you don’t know what you’re going to feed to your children this evening for dinner. And you don’t know if you’re going to have any kind of job that will allow you to pay rent next month. So the level of stress becomes really high. Every smoker will tell you, the first thing they do when they feel stress is reaching out for a cigarette.”

Pezzino says Wyandotte County has the highest smoking rate in Kansas and poor performance on a host of other measures. While officials and community leaders in Wyandotte County are working to address those issues, it takes time to see a change in the ranking.

“We call these the 2016 rankings. In reality, the data that’s based on spans from 2007 to 2014 — and that’s just for a few measures in 2014,” Pezzino says. “Recent efforts, even if they have produced results, those results are not captured in this report. It may take a full generation before they can really see the results of their investment. But they’re doing wonderful things, and they’re really addressing the right factors.”

Bryan Thompson is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.

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