County Health Rankings released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute show that Lowndes County ranks last in health of all Alabama counties. The contrast with top-ranked Shelby County in factors from availability of doctors to access to healthy foods is striking.
The County Health Rankings show the rank of the health of nearly every county in the nation, looking at a variety of measures that affect health such as the rate of people dying before age 75, high school graduation rates, unemployment, limited access to healthy foods, air and water quality, income, and rates of smoking, obesity, and teen births.
Lowndes County’s population is nearly three-quarters African American and 27% percent of residents live at or below the poverty level. It is located in Alabama’s Black Belt, home to some of the poorest counties in the United States. Four of the five least healthy counties in Alabama are in the Black Belt: Lowndes (#67 out of 67), Hale (65), Perry (64) and Wilcox (63).
The rankings measured premature death (years of potential life lost before age 75 per 100,000 people) in Lowndes County (15,671) at nearly three times the national benchmark (5317). Shelby County’s 6212 potential years of life lost barely exceeded the benchmark and is substantially lower than the statewide figure of 9609. The population of Shelby County is 83% white.
The ratio of population to primary care physicians in Lowndes County is 11,270 people to each doctor. That number is just 1173 residents per doctor in Shelby County, where 12% of the population is uninsured compared to 17% statewide and in Lowndes.
Lowndes County’s unemployment rate of 16.6% is more than double that of Shelby County (6.3%) and 40% of Lowndes children are living in poverty, compared to 12% in Shelby County and 28% statewide. The rankings found that 26% of Lowndes residents have limited access to healthy foods because they are low-income and do not live close to a grocery store, in contrast with just 4% of Shelby County residents and 8% of Alabamians.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation intends its rankings to serve as a call to action for communities to understand the health problems in their community and recognize that factors outside medical care influence health. It hopes the results will mobilize action on the part of governmental public health and other sectors that can influence and are affected by health.
County rankings can be compared side-by-side on the Foundation’s website, which reveals stark disparities between counties like Lowndes and Shelby. As the Foundation put it in a news release, “[P]eople in the unhealthiest counties are dying too early at more than twice the rates of those in the healthiest counties.”