Georgia up slightly in state health rankings, but still on lower end

Georgia improved two spots in a national ranking of the healthiest states, ranking 39th in the latest evaluation by the United Health Foundation.

The 2018 America’s Health Rankings report found Georgia mirrored national trends with an increase in adult obesity and a reduced rate of children in poverty.

The nation’s obesity rate exceeded 30 percent of adults for the first time, the report said. Georgia’s rate of obesity reached 31.6 percent. But in positive news, the state’s rate of kids in poverty fell to 21 percent, though it’s still more than the national 18.4 percent mark.

Alarmingly, the suicide rate rose both here and nationally. Georgia’s increased from 13.2 to 13.8 deaths per 100,000 population, just about the same as the national average of 13.9 deaths.

Hawaii was ranked as the healthiest state in 2018, followed by Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Utah.

Several states in the South or on its periphery were among the unhealthiest. Arkansas was 46th, followed by Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana (50th).

The report said Georgia’s strengths included having a high meningococcal immunization coverage among adolescents; low prevalence of excessive drinking; and a low rate of frequent physical distress.

And Georgia’s rates of primary care physicians and mental health providers increased from last year’s figures.

The state’s challenges, according to the report, include low immunization coverage among children; a high prevalence of low-birthweight babies; and a high percentage of people without health insurance.

“Though it is encouraging to see Georgia improve two positions in America’s Health Rankings, major challenges remain,’’ said Marsha Davis, interim dean of the University of Georgia College of Public Health. She cited the state’s high rates of maternal mortality and of babies born with low birthweights.

“Much still needs to be done to promote a healthy start for Georgia’s mothers and babies, starting with improving access to quality prenatal care,’’ Davis said Wednesday. “Likewise, the state’s overall high uninsured rate means people don’t have access to regular preventive care, which contributes to the increased rates we’ve seen in obesity and cancer.”

Obesity is a leading contributor to cardiovascular disease, cancer and other conditions. Additionally, an increase in drug deaths, suicides and cardiovascular disease deaths is contributing to an increase in premature death, the report said.

“This year’s Annual Report spotlights an obesity problem that continues to grow,” Dr. Rhonda Randall, chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare National Markets, said in a statement. “This means more people will likely develop obesity-related chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.”

“We encourage health professionals, public health officials and elected leaders to use these findings to explore opportunities to better support people in their communities in all aspects of their health.”

Deaths from chronic diseases contribute to the nation’s premature death rate — the number of years lost before an individual reaches age 75. This rate increased for the fourth straight year, driven by suicide and drug deaths, with 7,432 years lost per 100,000 people this year, the report said. Drug deaths and occupational fatalities have also increased recently, with drug deaths jumping 25 percent and occupational fatalities increasing by 19 percent in the past three years.

In Georgia over the past four years, premature death increased 10 percent, from 7,624 to 8,391 years lost before age 75 per 100,000 population.

America’s Health Rankings evaluates 35 core measures in five categories: behavior, community and environment, policy, clinical care and outcomes data.