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Health assessment shifts focus to obesity, mental health

While AIDS prevention was the focus of health studies in Washington County back in the 1990s, the focus has shifted to obesity, mental health and chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

A new Washington County survey reveals the leading cause of death is still cancer, followed by heart disease, Alzheimer’s and stroke.

Washington County conducted its five-year Community Health Assessment in 2013 and released the results last week. The assessment gathered data from the Minnesota Department of Health along with an online opinion survey and listening sessions that highlighted major concerns among key community members.

“We look at the environment, the population we serve and the health of the public,” said Sue Hedlund, deputy director for the county’s department of public health and environment.

Back in 1991, the county established a task force to tackle HIV and AIDS prevention efforts.

The disease was a concern nationwide for many years until treatments advanced and positive results began showing up on surveys.

In recent years, the Washington County public health department began cholesterol screenings and targeting obesity across all communities. Efforts may have contributed to lowering heart disease death rates, which is now the second most leading cause of death after cancer, Hedlund said.

Cancer is the cause of death for 187 per 100,000 persons, while heart disease is the cause of death for 114 per 100,000, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The numbers are declining, however, said Hedlund, who explained that screenings and early treatment are contributing to the lower mortality rates.

“The bypass and angioplasty is reducing the death rate much more,” she said. “What we can do now and what we know now is really extending people’s lives.”

The community health assessment also includes an opinion survey with responses about various health topics from 1,042 participants who took it last year. The department of public health combined all the data to come up with top priorities to address.

Associate planner Tommi Goodwin said respondents were asked about 94 potential issues the county faces and came up with a few they thought should be addressed countywide.

“There is a cluster from about three to seven,” she said of the issues. “There is a very close level of concern.”

Among the top concerns are distracted driving, underage alcohol use, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, tobacco use by youth and obesity among children.

The county also conducted 29 listening sessions with key informant adults and youth who said that mental health, substance abuse and lack of physical activity are top concerns.

The county then went through a process to score the criteria based on risk, quality of life, economic impact and health equity.

The results: obesity, nutrition and physical activity should be addressed first, followed by chronic disease, mental health and substance abuse.

According to the 2010 Metro Adult Health Survey, 35 percent of adults in Washington County are overweight while 26 percent were considered obese.

Goodwin said the numbers are slightly lower than previous years, but they still make up 61 percent of the population.

The county plans to address behavioral health, which rolls mental health, substance abuse, youth alcohol use and tobacco use all in one priority category, Goodwin said.

According to the community health assessment, the trend line for tobacco use is declining significantly, but youth marijuana use is staying flat.

There is a concern with the “perception of harm” now that a few states have legalized marijuana, Goodwin said.

“This could be an emerging new issue again that we may need to give attention to,” she said.

Additional statistics show the suicide rate between 2003 and 2010 staying consistent at 9.2 per 100,000 persons, which is a concern for Washington County.

“It’s significantly lower than the state,” Goodwin said. “But again we’re concerned with the numbers not going down.”

The county plans to address behavioral health with the help of the community services department and members of the mental health local advisory committee in meetings in February and March.

Staff is also planning to work with key partners like school districts, hospitals and clinics to address priority issues and work with metro area local health departments to better coordinate efforts and shared resources.

Washington County Board is set to adopt the Community Health Assessment at an upcoming meeting.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.