Island County remains one of the healthiest counties in Washington state and continues to have one of the lowest obesity rates.
Island County ranks as the third healthiest county in the state overall, up from fourth healthiest in 2021, according to an ongoing national classification study.
According to County Health Rankings & Roadmap, a program of the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, 27% of Island County’s population is obese. Only two counties have a lower number: King County is 22% obese, and San Jaun County is 26%. Jefferson County also comes in at 27%.
In comparison, the most obese counties are Adams County at 39%, Grant County also at 39%, and Douglas, Yakima and Cowlitz counties all at 37%. Nearby Skagit and Snohomish counties are both at 30%.
Leah Wainman, the assessment and healthy communities director for Island County Public Health, said her job involves monitoring data points such as these and looking at them through multiple lenses, such as age, geographic regions, race and ethnicity and income levels.
“To see where we’re doing well and where there are opportunities for improvement as a population,” she said.
Island County’s obesity rate correlates with the population’s physical activity level. In 2019, the most recent year such data was collected, over 54% of Island County residents reported they are meeting the recommended daily amount for aerobic activity.
Wainman said that otherwise, it is difficult to say why Island County has such a low obesity rate compared to other counties in Washington.
“There are lots of things that happen in this community and lots of people in this community that contribute to wellness and that work to prevent chronic disease,” she said. “So it would be hard to point to one specific area.”
According to County Health Rankings & Roadmap, social and economic factors in the county are generally better than in the state overall, which could contribute to better physical health. Only 8% of children live in poverty compared to the state average of 11%, and 16% of children live in single-parent households compared to the state average of 19%.
Air pollution in the county is lower than the state average; there is an average of 7.3 micrograms of fine particulate matter per cubic meter in Island County compared to an average of 8.1 micrograms per cubic meter in the state. Only 14% of Island County residents report being in poor or fair health compared to the state average of 16%.
Smoking and excessive drinking, however, were reported as higher than the state average; 14% of adults are smokers compared to the state average of 13% and 20% report excessive drinking compared to the state average of 16%. Driving deaths that involved alcohol impairment came in at 41% in Island County, compared to an average of 33% at the state level.
A specific concern that Wainman said she is seeing in the county is a high number of senior falls.
“Those are preventable,” she said. “Falls lead to hospitalization and the more you fall, the more you’re hospitalized, which as you get older increases your chances of death.”
Falls usually cost healthcare systems a lot of money. Wainman said she is currently working with community partners to develop a fall prevention program. The high number could be attributed to the fact that Island County has an older population.
Another area she said needs to be addressed is the need for opportunities for youth to engage in after-school activities, especially physical activities that prevent chronic disease later in life. There was a decline in the percentage of youth reporting that they were receiving an adequate amount of daily exercise and reporting less access to after-school activities. The COVID-19 pandemic likely contributed to this.
“We are working with our Human Services department who support Big Brothers Big Sisters, Boys and Girls Club, and Pediatric Associates,” Wainman said. “The idea is to host opportunities for youth to try different after-school activities and have access to physical and mental health care.”
The Healthy Island Youth Initiative is a program that provides scholarships to students whose families cannot afford the cost of organized physical activities in the Coupeville and South Whidbey school districts. More information can be found at islandcountywa.gov.
While Island County residents are generally in good health and obesity is low, that doesn’t mean there is not room for improvement.
“This is a great data point and something that we should share and be proud of as a community,” Wainman said, “but it should not deter us from trying to address it, and lower it more and look at who’s not experiencing that level of health and well-being.”