Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 3:56 PM on Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Statistics show Kenai Peninsula residents are getting healthier

By Brian Smith
Morris News Service - Alaska

Residents of the Kenai Peninsula Borough are generally living longer, better and engaging in more healthy activities than they have been in the past and are healthier for it — more so than in some other surrounding areas, according to a national survey.

The 2012 County Health Rankings indicate the Kenai Peninsula Borough ranks sixth of 23 areas surveyed in Alaska for health outcomes in 2012. Health outcomes include the length and quality of residents' lives.

The same survey said the peninsula ranks eighth of 22 in health factors such as health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors and physical environment.

The study, completed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute, measures a number of statistics and results of personal surveys to measure health in counties across the nation. The peninsula showed improvement in a number of areas from the same survey completed in 2010.

The peninsula's health outcome statistic is weighed equally between mortality and morbidity. The peninsula has improved to sixth in the state from eighth in 2010. In 2012, Anchorage ranked ninth, Matanuska Susitna Borough ranked 12, southeast Fairbanks ranked first and Juneau second for health outcomes.

Specifically, the peninsula improved to ninth of 23 in mortality from 11th in 2010. The area improved to eighth in morbidity — quality of life including poor or fair health percent, days of poor health or mental health in the last 30 days and low birth rate — from ninth in 2010.

The peninsula's health factors rose slightly from ninth of 22 in 2010 to eighth in 2012. In this category, Juneau ranked first, Sitka second and Anchorage third while Mat-Su ranked 10th.

The health factors category weighs health behaviors (30 percent), clinical care (20 percent), social and economic factors (40 percent) and physical environment (10 percent).

The peninsula ranked:

• Fifth in health behaviors, up from eighth in 2010;

• Eighth in clinical care, up from 18th in 2010;

• Eleventh in social and economic factors, down from 10th in 2010; and

• Ninth in physical environment, down from seventh in 2010.

Focus areas in those health factors ranked the peninsula:

• Tobacco use — fifth

• Diet and exercise — sixth;

n Alcohol use — 15th;

• Sexual activity — third;

• Access to care — 11th;

• Quality of care — third;

• Education — 11th;

n Employment — 13th;

• Income — 10th;

• Family and social support — fourth; and

• Community safety — eighth.

Other peninsula statistics from the report include:

n People reporting "poor or fair" health days — 14 percent, state average is 13 percent;

n Average number of days people reported as "mentally unhealthy" in the last 30 days — 3.2, state average is 3;

n Low birth weight — 4.8 percent, state average is 5.9 percent;

• Adult smokers — 21 percent, state average is 23 percent;

• Excessive drinking — 18 percent, state average is 19 percent;

• Uninsured adults — 30 percent, state average is 27 percent;

• Number of primary care physicians — 59;

• People who have inadequate social support — 17 percent, state average is 19 percent;

• Access to healthy foods — 50 percent, six of 12 zip codes have access to healthy foods, state average is 54 percent;

• Access to fast foods — a total 36 eateries, 34 percent of all restaurants, state average is 44 percent;

• Illiteracy — 8.4 percent, state average is 9.2 percent.

Bob Frates, city of Kenai Parks and Recreation director, said he thinks the Peninsula has a high quality of life.

"It is the opportunities provided to us here on the peninsula," he said. "We are blessed with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge right in our backyard and we've got great access to all the outdoor recreational avenues that anyone could ever want — lakes, ATVing, snowmachining, the canoe system out there on Swanson River and great fishing. Location speaks volumes for us and our access to those outdoor opportunities."

Frates also mentioned local infrastructure as a reason the peninsula might be getting healthier.

"It is your disc golf courses, it's your trails whether its pedestrian trails or bike trails and I think that infrastructure is improving and has improved over the last few years," he said. "That, I think, is getting people motivated and out and about."

Kjell Risung, a cyclist and skiing enthusiast and physical therapist Frontier Physical Therapy Services, said he was happy to see how many people use the Unity Trail from Kenai to Soldotna.

"We need to use what we have but also realize what we have is limited and we need to increase it," he said.

Risung said when he came to the peninsula in the late 1990s there weren't very many ski or cycling clubs for adults. Risung said he's pleased several such clubs have since been established, including a cycling club he's involved with.

"There is a need for clubs in the community to give people a sense of belonging and offer them coaching and offer them a physical environment, a club type environment to breed healthy sports and healthy living," he said.

He also said the increasing number and popularity of athletic events for adults such as marathons and triathlons give residents something to strive for.

Those events help showcase the community's athletic talent and offer a "vital" prize.

"People strive by goal-setting," he said. "Sports activities can help them become healthy physically and mentally and offer them something positive into their everyday life."

Frates mentioned the rising cost of health care might be contributing to the statistics.

"I think that is causing people to be a little more mindful about their health because of those rising costs not just here on the peninsula, but we are seeing that nationwide," he said.

Frates also mentioned the local school district and its health education classes as a driver of a community's health.

John O'Brien, director of secondary education and student activities for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, said students receive a wealth of health and physical education.

"I would say the health class of today is vastly different than the health class that I went through," he said. "We really focus on multiple facets -- the mental, emotional component, the family, social and interpersonal, injury and disease prevention ... community, consumer and environmental information, nutrition, growth development and the importance of hygiene."

Middle school students are placed in daily physical education classes, elementary schools have physical education at least three times a week and also have recess at least once a day and most high schools have students take two physical education classes with one semester of health, in addition to whatever extracurricular sports they are involved with.

Andie Posey, chief nursing officer at Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, said a healthy community can be achieved and sustained as long as residents make it a priority.

But getting started is half the battle, she said. She mentioned her own social circle that uses each other as motivation to be healthy and athletic as an example.

"Ease, low-cost and making it fun are all things that improve our community and help people not have so many excuses not to participate," she said.

Brian Smith is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.