Hooray for Los Alamos County. For the second year in a row, it has been ranked the healthiest community in the United States by U.S. News and World Report.
It’s the first time a community has topped the list in consecutive years since U.S. News began the rankings back in 2018.
We remain list skeptics — the criteria for grading, after all, can be arbitrary — but rankings can remind us of what works and what doesn’t. Particularly, as the nation looks beyond the pandemic, the approach to health and science by Los Alamos residents is one to emulate.
First, let’s talk about the larger reality revealed by the rankings. Frequently, the wealthier communities in a state proved to be the healthiest. Los Alamos County is one of the most affluent in the country; it is the most affluent in New Mexico, with a median income of more than $121,000.
People with money in their pockets have better access to health care. They likely have jobs with good benefits, including health insurance, and have enough cash to pay out-of-pocket expenses. Someone making $120,000 a year likely isn’t cutting lifesaving medicines in half because the copay is too expensive.
If the United States — or New Mexico — wants its people to be healthy, it must be easier for people to see doctors, afford prescription drugs and pay out-of-pocket medical expenses. Because of the pandemic, we have seen lives lost in areas of the country without adequate medical care. This was happening before a deadly virus swept the country, but with COVID-19, the limits of the U.S. health care system became apparent in real time.
We also saw successes, including President Joe Biden’s turnaround of the vaccination rollout. In Los Alamos County — one of the best-educated places in the world — the vaccination rate is an impressive 80-plus percent of individuals with both doses. Smart people, educated people, reality-based people all understand that vaccinations are a key component of ending the pandemic. Vaccine-skeptical locations across the country had worse health outcomes, according to this report. Let’s all try to be like Los Alamos.
The county sets an example in other ways. Residents love the outdoors and use spare time to hike, ski, snowboard, bicycle, jog and otherwise keep moving. Los Alamos boasts a public skating rink, well-equipped pool, ski-boarding area and plenty of rock climbing areas. There is an understanding that healthy bodies fuel healthy minds, and thinking is a chief occupation of Los Alamos residents. The county boasts a 58-mile trail network, 13 developed public parks and a golf course. No wonder Los Alamos scored first in the infrastructure category, along with top marks in housing and population health.
Residents have lower underlying health conditions — diabetes and obesity — both of which helped the county weather the pandemic. Los Alamos residents also were quick to adopt social-distancing and mask-wearing measures, key public health strategies that kept cases down even before the widespread vaccination effort.
What we can learn from this study of healthy communities is that to be healthy, people need to be able to visit a doctor and receive the care they need. They can stay well if their underlying health conditions are better — that means ability to purchase good food and to have time and places to exercise. Residents don’t have to struggle to do what’s best for body and soul. The default is set for health. That’s a condition we need to match in all of New Mexico.