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Colorado's Vices And Changing Population Are Starting To Take A Toll On Our Healthy Rep

Cara Pallone
Brandon Cessna at O'Bannon's Irish Pub in Telluride. San Miguel County has the second highest rate of binge drinking in the state.

Colorado is, overall, one of the healthiest states in the country – but things are starting to change as the population grows and ages. One of the unintended side effects is a widening disparity between the healthiest and least healthy counties.

New data indicates disparities across geographic regions; with people living in the mountain communities generally ranking as the healthiest in Colorado. In part due to the things that attract people to the state to begin with.

"The amount of sunshine, the world class skiing, hiking, fly fishing, the ability to go right outside your backyard and experience nature," said Democratic Summit County commissioner Dan Gibbs.

Read More: Three Disparities That Show A Coloradan's Health Can Vary By Where They Live

Gibbs, who's lived in Summit County for more than a decade, isn't surprised to learn his home is listed as one of the top 10 healthiest Colorado counties.

"People really believe in healthy living," he said. "When you're at a restaurant or bar, people are always quick to say; 'Hey what are you going tomorrow? Or what kind of mountain bike do you have? Do you want to go hiking, fishing, or backpacking?'"

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation put together the 2015 health ranking. It looked a range of factors, from smoking and drinking to premature deaths and obesity rates.

Burt Hubbard, with Rocky Mountain PBS News, analyzed the data, finding that "five out of the 10 healthiest were on the Western Slope."

"Although many people perceive Colorado being the healthiest state in the country, when you take a look down at the specific data about what's making Colorado healthy and what's making us not healthy, there are definitely areas for us to improve."

Pitkin County, home to Aspen, was the healthiest in the state, followed by Douglas County, a Denver suburb, which also happens to be the wealthiest county in Colorado. Other regions didn't fare as well.

"We know that southeastern Colorado for example has been one of the most economically depressed area in the state," said Jeff Bontrager, the director of research on coverage access for the Denver-based nonprofit Colorado Health Institute. "Also, when you look at rural areas they may not have as many resources available especially if it's an economically depressed area."

The least healthy of Colorado's 64 counties include Huerfano, Conejos, Costilla, Las Animas and Rio Grande.

"When you look at where counties ranked in terms of being healthy, it aligns so closely to the pattern that we see in poverty rates in the state," said Sarah Hughes, the research director for the Colorado Children's Campaign, which tracks the health of Colorado children.

That's why it's important for policy makers to take a broad look at health, everything from education to economic development, she said.

"Just focusing on those things that we think of as being traditionally health related, like health coverage, or access to healthy foods, won't necessarily be enough to improve the overall health of Coloradans," Hughes said.

Colorado has seen some positive trends. Smoking rates are going down, and over the last decade fewer teens have been sexually active and fewer are binge drinking. Colorado is still the thinnest state in the country, but that doesn't show the whole picture.

"Although many people perceive Colorado being the healthiest state in the country, when you take a look down at the specific data about what's making Colorado healthy and what's making us not healthy, there are definitely areas for us to improve," said Kyle Legleiter, the policy director for the Colorado Health Foundation. "We have remained consistently the leanest state in the country for adults, but when we compare our adult obesity rate for this year to what it was back in 2006, our actual ranking for today would make us one of the most obese states 10 years ago."

Even the healthiest counties aren't healthy in every area. Take binge drinking. According to the RMPBS News analysis, only 9 percent of people in Lincoln County, on the eastern plains, and Rio Grande County, in the southwest part of the state, binge drink. In Summit County that number jumps to 33 percent.

Anecdotally that matches up with what Sarah Hughes of the Colorado Children's Campaign hears about the mountain communities. Their grassroots network members do mention "higher rates of drinking and substance abuse."

"[I've] kind of heard people attribute that to the vacation tourism atmosphere they have up there," said Hughes.

During the 2016 legislative session, state lawmakers will also be taking a closer look at how to lower the cost of health insurance. Fewer Coloradans are now covered through work, and in the mountain regions, the insurance rates are still the highest in the country.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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