****A previous version of this story only included 2016 numbers***
Henderson County is the 'healthiest' in Western North Carolina according to the latest County Health Rankings report issued by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. Polk County comes in right behind Henderson, followed by Transylvania and Buncombe. The high marks for Henderson & Polk are thanks in part to below average adult smoking rates, as well as better access to healthier foods.
The County Health Rankings report looks at a variety of factors the authors say “if improved, can help make communities healthier places to live, learn, work and play.” They range from unemployment to smoking and excessive drinking to air pollution to commute times.
Both Henderson and Polk Counties score very high on what’s known as the ‘food environment index.’ The study looked at how close low-income residents are to supermarkets, which generally provide healthier food options than small grocery or convenience stores according to researchers. In rural areas – such as Polk and Henderson Counties – the passing grade for this index is within 10 miles. In urban areas – like Asheville – it’s less than a mile. Buncombe County’s low mark in the ‘food environment index’ led it to be ranked beneath its southern neighbors in the study.
Buncombe County does have the best ratio doctors, dentists, and mental health professionals to residents in the region. It also has the lowest rate of physically inactive residents. But a much greater rate of diagnosed chlamydia cases helped drag down Western North Carolina’s largest county in the rankings.
The study produced two rankings based on health ‘factors’ and health ‘outcomes’. ‘Factors’ are what influences public health, and Buncombe ranked 5th out of North Carolina’s 100 counties, with Polk at 6 and Henderson at 7. ‘Outcomes’ weigh both length and quality of life, and Henderson County came in 13th out of 100. Polk County ranked 17th in out comes, while, Buncombe was 25th. All three ranked higher in outcomes in last year's report.
One reason Polk County fared so well in the study is its very high ‘social associations’ score. This looked at residents who were members of civic, religious, political, sports, labor, business or professional organizations and clubs. Researchers state “poor family support, minimal contact with others, and limited involvement in community life are associated with increased morbidity and early mortality. A 2001 study found that the magnitude of health risk associated with social isolation is similar to the risk of cigarette smoking.” Polk County’s ‘social associations’ rate in the study is twice the North Carolina state average, and almost twice the U.S. average.
Swain County fared the worst in Western North Carolina in the study. It had the highest number of ‘preventable hospital stays’ and the highest premature death rate, which examines the ages of people who die before the age of 75. Swain also had the highest income inequality ratio in Western North Carolina, and the highest violent crime rate in the region. Graham County also ranked near the bottom, thanks to what is by far the region’s biggest unemployment rate of 12%.