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Timber counties' economy found to impact health

With the notable exception of Jackson County, Oregon's timber counties tend to be less healthy than other rural and urban parts of the state, according to rankings released this week.

Small rural counties that have struggled economically since the decline of the timber industry accounted for many of the counties at the bottom of the rankings in Oregon.

Jackson County, however, was ranked 13th of the 33 counties measured in the study. Josephine, Klamath, Douglas, Coos and Curry counties were all in the bottom eight as determined by health, socioeconomic and environmental factors.

Oregon's healthiest county also was rural — Grant County in the northeastern corner of the state.

The unhealthiest was right next door and also rural, Baker County.

Two urban counties, Multnomah and Marion, were in the middle.

The rankings were done by the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"The rankings show us that things like having a job, a good education, access to healthy foods, or a safe place to live affects how healthy we are," Dr. Patrick Remington, associate dean of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said in a teleconference. "We see the rankings changing the conversation about health in communities from one focused mostly on health care and treating diseases to one that focuses on how and where we live can promote health and prevent diseases."

Remington said child poverty rates have not improved since 2000, and are running at more than 20 percent. Counties with the highest rates of premature deaths have the lowest quality of life, and highest rates of smoking, teen birth and physical inactivity.

Dr. Katherine Mechling has a family practice in Selma, a rural community in Josephine County, which was 29th out of 33 counties ranked. She tries to get her patients to spend more time outdoors, and less time eating fast food and shopping at big chain stores that push food that is bad for them.

"We live in paradise, but people go from their house, to their car, to the grocery store and never get outside," she said. "We are not going to get back to logging. We can go back to using the forest for health."

University of Oregon economist Benjamin Hansen said health data was often confusing when compared to economic data.

"The big contradiction in all the data is if you compare across counties, poverty is associated with bad health," he said in an email. "But if you look in the same counties over business cycles, higher unemployment is associated with better health (fewer deaths, etc.). But if you look at individuals, being unemployed or laid off is really bad for your health. So it's a mystery."

Troy Soenen, the field services director for the Oregon Office of Rural Health at Oregon Health and Science University, said the rankings were suspect, because factors such as physical inactivity were based on self-reporting, which tends to be inaccurate.

He added that while the rankings showed Grant County with an adult obesity rate of 24 percent, below the state rate of 26 percent, a recent local survey of children in schools showed obesity higher than the state rate. Factors based on hard data, such as mammography screenings, are more helpful, he said.

"The bottom line on the county ranking thing: I think it's a good tool for communities if they can go in and look at different indicators," he said. "Do I think the rankings are helpful? Not really. Because I think every county in Oregon has work to do."