CHAMPAIGN — Your chances of living healthier and longer may depend, at least partly, on which county you call home.
Research released Tuesday that ranks U.S. counties from most to least healthy placed Champaign County in roughly the top third in Illinois — making it one of the state's healthier places to live — while Vermilion County was ranked dead last in the state.
The research, done annually by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is intended to present a clearer picture of which factors influence how healthy people are and how long they're likely to live.
Emphasized in the 2019 survey was a link between high housing costs and health. Researchers found 11 percent of households in the U.S. spend more than half their income on housing.
In Champaign County, 20 percent of households were considered to have severe housing problems — meaning they're dealing with at least one of these factors: high housing costs, overcrowding, lack of kitchen facilities or lack of plumbing facilities — compared to 12 percent in Vermilion County.
Overcrowding in housing can encourage more disease spread, according to Champaign-Urbana Public Health District Administrator Julie Pryde. And when people have to spend an unhealthy amount of their income on housing, she said, that can impact both physical and mental health.
"If most of your income has to go to just having a roof over your head, you can't get ahead," she said. "Lots of times, that money needs to be spent for food, for a vehicle, for medication."
Poorly-maintained housing also can come with cockroaches, which can worsen asthma, along with unhealthy mold and mildew, Pryde said.
"Plus, being on the verge of homelessness all the time is ungodly stressful for people," she said.
Vermilion County Health Department Administrator Doug Toole acknowledged it's frustrating to see his county ranked near or at the bottom of the state each year.
"Our best year, we were 91 (out of 102 counties)," he said. "Last year, we were 99."
The 2010 budget cuts that reduced the Vermilion County Health Department from a staff of 75 to 25 remain in effect, though a few more staff members have been added over the years since then, Toole said.
The budget cuts didn't just reduce parts of public health programs — they cut entire programs, among them sexually transmitted disease testing, a community care unit and the Healthy Moms Healthy Kids program, he said.
But personal choices — to smoke or not, to avoid exercise or not, or skip a flu shot, for example — count, too, Toole said. And he'd like to see more people who decide to make healthier choices reach out to public health for help.
Expectant and new moms are eligible for the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) supplemental nutrition program from the moment they learn they're pregnant until their children reach age 5, and many women don't take advantage of that, Toole said.
"Thirty-one percent of the kids in our county live at or below the poverty level," he said.
In Champaign County, 17 percent of kids were found to be living in poverty, according to health rankings data.
Champaign County also had lower rates of adult smoking, adult obesity and physical inactivity and a higher percentage of people getting a flu shot in comparison to Vermilion County.
Some factors that may have bumped Vermilion County to the bottom of the list in Illinois this year were increases in violent crime and STDs, Toole said.
If he could influence personal health choices, Toole said, he'd have everyone seeing their doctors for check-ups once or twice a year.
"And if you don't have a primary care physician, get one," he advised.
Some of the data on which county rankings were based included:
— Adult obesity: 26 percent in Champaign County, 35 percent in Vermilion.
— Adult smoking: 16 percent in Champaign County, 18 percent in Vermilion.
— Physical inactivity: 19 percent in Champaign County, 28 percent in Vermilion.