Wake County looks good not just to transplants but to health experts.
Wake’s socioeconomic conditions, its stock of outdoor recreational activities and lineup of quality healthcare providers have helped shape a county population that’s the healthiest in North Carolina, according to the County Health Rankings, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
County Health Rankings considers dozens of health statistics including length of life, birth weight, obesity, tobacco use, alcohol-impaired driving deaths, teen pregnancies, education levels, rates of the uninsured, access to hospitals, unemployment and crime, among other data.
The Wake County government announced the news Wednesday, saying local municipalities, businesses, health advocates and residents have worked together for years to create a health-conscious culture.
“Being ranked as the healthiest county in North Carolina is in large part because of the strong partnerships we have with our community and business partners,” said Dr. Jim Smith, chairman of the Wake County Human Services Board.
Orange, Union, Camden and Mecklenburg counties rounded out the top five healthiest of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Durham and Johnston placed 15th and 28th, respectively.
County Health Rankings launched in 2010 and has ranked Wake as the state’s healthiest county each year except 2015, when Orange received the top grade. Wake reclaimed the top position this year not because of a dramatic change in one particular health category, but because of several incremental data shifts, said Ali Havrilla, community coach with County Health Rankings.
“It’s no one factor, it’s little shifts here and there that impact health,” Havrilla said.
Orange County’s adult smoking, sexually transmitted infection and income inequality rates likely contributed to the ratings swap. Those rates increased noticeably in Orange while they dropped or rose only slightly in Wake.
“When I look at Wake County’s snapshot, I see a lot of great stuff,” Havrilla said. “A lot of folks in the community are outside and physically active.”
Wake County features almost 300 miles of existing greenway trails, including more than 100 miles in Raleigh and 70 miles in Cary alone.
North Carolina doesn’t enjoy great overall health compared to the rest of the nation, but its statistics fare well when compared with others in the South, according to the latest United Health Foundation report. The Tar Heel state ranks 31st in overall health, better than every state south of Virginia and east of Arizona.
Wake’s spot atop the state’s County Health Rankings is likely to bolster the Triangle’s reputation as one of the best places to live in the nation and offer economic development benefits, county leaders and health advocates said. The group released its rankings a day after the Raleigh City Council approved a plan to place bike rental stations at 30 locations near downtown.
“Both boost our stock as a great place to live and work,” said Sara Merz, executive director of Advocates for Health in Action, a coalition that supports efforts to increase access to healthy food and physical activity in the county. “We are a place everyone wants to be. This gives us even more of a competitive edge and affirms our high quality of life.”
Commissioner Matt Calabria said Wake leaders plan to look at the data and learn from it to continue to improve the county’s overall health. The board recently increased funding for prenatal care and at-school meals for impoverished children, he noted.
Wake’s score sheet shows room for improvement. While child poverty is low, the rates are trending upward, and 25 percent of residents are obese.
“We’re certainly looking at a more comprehensive effort to tackle those issues,” Calabria said.