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Healthiest Vs Unhealthiest US Cities

November 17, 2008

If you want to find a city in the United States with an abnormally high healthy population go no further than Burlington, Vermont.

Ninety-two percent of people say they are in good or great health; it’s also among the best in exercise and among the lowest in obesity, diabetes and other measures of ill health, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This New England city of 40,000, on the shores of Lake Champlain, is in some ways similar to the unhealthiest city Huntington, West Virginia.  Both are out-of-the-way college towns with populations that are overwhelmingly white people of English, German or Irish ancestry.

But in contrast, nearly half of all adults in Huntington are obese; its economy has withered, its poverty rate is worse than the national average, and vagrants haunt a downtown riverfront park. But this city’s financial woes are not nearly as bad as its health.

Huntington leads in a half-dozen other illness measures, too, including heart disease and diabetes.

Shari Wiley is a nurse at St. Mary’s Regional Heart Institute in Huntington and runs a program that identifies heavy school children and tries to teach them better eating and exercise habits. The effort began because of an alarming trend.

“A lot of the patients we were seeing were getting heart attacks in their 30s. They were requiring open heart surgery in their 30s. And we were concerned because it used to be you wouldn’t see heart patients come in until they were in their 50s,” Wiley said.

Burlington boosts outside factors that could play a part in its focus on healthy living.

It’s better off financially, with 8 percent living at the federal poverty level, compared to 19 percent in Huntington.

People are also more educated, with nearly 40 percent of residents having at least a college bachelor’s degree compared to 15 percent in the Huntington area.

The cultures are significantly different, too. Bicycling, hiking, skiing and other exercises are common in Burlington. Neighborhood groups commonly focus on improving parks, working in community gardens and repairing and improving sidewalks.

“There’s this norm of a lot of activity,” said Chris Finley, Vermont’s deputy health commissioner, who works in Burlington.

Grass-fed beef is offered in finer restaurants, vegan options are plentiful, and the lone downtown supermarket is run by a co-op successful in selling bulk rice and other healthy choices to low-income residents.

Burlington is also helped by the presence of IBM and other employers offering more generous health benefits and corporate wellness programs than companies in Huntington, some experts suggested.

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