Coloradans’ health far from best

While adults rank high, data for younger populations are troubling

Colorado is continually heralded as the fittest state in the country – but behind that ranking stand a host of health measures that paint a different picture, placing the state midpack or worse in things such as infant mortality and binge drinking.

And even that No. 1 ranking – best – among the 50 states in the rate of adult obesity may mask serious future troubles: Colorado stands 23rd in childhood obesity and is even farther down the list in other key measures of the overall health of the state’s youngest population.

“If we’re 23rd in kids and No. 1 in adults, how sustainable is that?” asked James Hill, a University of Colorado pediatrics professor who is involved in extensive obesity research. “I think that’s reason to be concerned – I really do.”

Emily King, a research analyst at the Colorado Health Institute who compiled the data, said it is impossible to simply look at the numbers and project the future. But it also may portend a reality very different from that experienced by the state’s adult population today.

“The fact that our childhood obesity rate is much higher than it was in the past suggests that our adult obesity rates will be higher a couple of decades from now because we know that obese children are more likely to grow up to be obese adults,” she said.

Other measures in the health institute’s data also suggest serious challenges for Colorado on issues related to children. For example, the state ranked 31st in late- or nonexistent prenatal care, 37th in low birth-weight babies and 42nd in children without insurance, according to an I-News examination of the health institute’s data.

That data underpins the Colorado Health Foundation’s annual Colorado Health Report Card. The report card uses the most recently available data to measure the relative health of Coloradans across a variety of areas that look at different stages of life, from prenatal and newborn care to adolescence, adulthood and the process of aging.

The Colorado Health Foundation used the data this year to ask the question: “What if we were No. 1?”

And while the state currently is first when it comes to adult waistlines – 20.9 percent of the state’s population of 18- to 64-year-olds are obese, the lowest percentage in the nation – it’s a different issue when it comes to children. The most recent data estimated that 14.2 percent of the state’s children were obese. Oregon, by comparison, was No. 1, with 9.6 percent of its children obese.

The Colorado Health Foundation estimated that if Colorado were to climb to No. 1 in childhood obesity, it would have 24,900 fewer kids living at an unhealthy weight.

The foundation estimated other categories where changes in Colorado’s ranking would mean dramatic changes in statistics – and, perhaps, economics.

For example, the foundation estimated that Colorado residents and their employers could save $121 million a year in health-care costs if it had the lowest rate of depression among the 50 states. In Colorado, 14.7 percent of the state’s adults reported that they had experienced “poor mental health.” That left Colorado ranked 13th among the states while North Dakota was No. 1, with 11.9 percent of adults reporting mental-health problems.

The report card also found that Colorado, if it could move to the top spot among the states, annually would have 2,100 more babies born at a healthy weight, 32,600 fewer high school students who smoke cigarettes and 376,800 fewer adults who binge drink.

The news wasn’t all bad – Colorado was first in older adults who participate in regular physical activity, fourth in adolescents who participate in regular physical activity and fifth in mothers who smoked during pregnancy.

Still, CU professor Hill said he worries about the future if the state can’t address the growing number of people who are obese.

“Preventing obesity is going to be easier than treating it, so we’ve got to get serious about kids and preventing obesity in the first place,” Hill said.

He said he would push for a simple goal in the beginning – for Colorado to maintain its current obesity rate as an important first step.

“Let’s focus on not gaining weight, rather than losing weight,” Hill said. “In other words, if our obesity rates stayed the same in Colorado, the projected savings over the next seven to 10 years are in billions.”

I-News is the public-service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS.

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