Little more than a signpost indicates the boundary between Santa Fe and San Miguel counties. A more distinct divide lies in the quality of life between the counties’ residents: San Miguel residents are more likely to have a sexually transmitted disease; 7 percent more adults there are obese; and workers earn $20,000 less annually than they would in Santa Fe County, according to a new report.
The division between these two counties is not unique. In counties throughout the state, a few miles may determine whether or not a child lives in poverty, how likely he or she is to graduate from high school and how easily the child’s family can access health care. These factors often also correlate with race, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2016 County Health Rankings report, publicly released Wednesday.
“It has been shown the more segregated an area is, the worse the health is,” said researcher Jan O’Neill.
The report, an annual collaboration between the foundation and the University of Wisconsin, ranks the health of every U.S. county based on a four-tiered assessment of residents’ behaviors, access to medical care, socioeconomic factors and the physical environment of the county.
Segregation was a new factor considered in the county health study this year, alongside other measures, such as insufficient levels of sleep and drug overdoses — factors seen in above-average rates in New Mexico counties across the board.
In Los Alamos County, which is ranked No. 1 in New Mexico for quality of life and longevity, the potential loss of life for a resident is rated far lower than in Mora County, which has the poorest health ranking in the state, according to the report. The researchers measure potential loss of life in terms of county residents’ “years of death before the age of 75 per 100,000 people.” In Los Alamos, that number is 3,700; in Mora County, the rate for potential loss of life is almost quadruple, at 14,700.
Los Alamos and Mora counties are just 86 miles apart, but differences in their populations are in stark contrast. Los Alamos is 73 percent white, with a median annual household income exceeding $108,000. About 83 percent of students in the county graduate from high school, and the rates of both child poverty and uninsured residents are just 5 percent.
In Mora County, the population is 80 percent Hispanic, the median annual household income is $27,600 and 96 percent of the children are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, often an indicator of poverty. About 24 percent of people lack health insurance.
The likelihood of a Mora resident having diabetes is almost double that for a Los Alamos resident, and 4 percent more adults are obese.
Mora has fewer mental health providers and dentists per capita than Los Alamos, and according to the report, its residents have fewer opportunities to exercise than people living in Los Alamos County.
Likely as a result of these factors, Mora residents are twice as likely to experience physical or mental distress than those in Los Alamos.
The report found that in many states, measures of residents’ health can vary greatly from one county to the next, indicating a “gap,” or inequality, within a state’s demographic makeup.
New Mexico, for instance, has the fourth-highest “obesity gap” in the nation. It also has a large gap between counties in measures of child poverty.
“It’s like income inequality — that haves and have-nots,” said O’Neill, an associate researcher at the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute and a contributor to the report. “Where we live matters to our health.”
The snowballing impacts of childhood obesity — which researchers say may lead to the first generation in decades in which children have a shorter life expectancy than their parents — was one of the factors that prompted researchers in Wisconsin to begin studying health impacts at the county level in 2010, when the first County Health Rankings report was released, O’Neill said.
Obesity is often an indicator of poverty, chronic illness and shorter life expectancy, she said.
Rio Arriba County, which is 71 percent Hispanic, has the second-worst health statistics in the state, according to the report, and McKinley County, which is 76 percent Native American, has the third-worst health measures.
The close proximity of these health-poor areas to the state’s healthiest counties — Santa Fe is No. 5 on the list and Sandoval County is No. 2 — indicates the disparity between how resources are allocated and how this affects the health of residents in the communities.
O’Neill said racial segregation can also impact people’s ability to access to clean water or air.
“Every community has its own context and culture,” O’Neill said, but “it really matters where you live, even across county lines or ZIP codes.”
DIABETES BY NEW MEXICO COUNTY
More residents of darker shaded counties in this map are enrolled in Medicare for diabetic treatment than residents of lighter counties.
EARLY DEATHS BY NEW MEXICO COUNTY
This map shows which New Mexico counties have higher rates of deaths before age 75. The darker shaded county indicates the more premature deaths occur there. Data was not immediately available for Harding and De Baca counties, which displays zero deaths.
Visualization by Dan Schwartz/The New Mexican Data source: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.