Los Alamos County, New Mexico, is healthiest US community

Located about 40 miles from Sante Fe, the county is home to canyons and mesas connected by a 58-mile network of trails, 13 developed public parks, and an expansive golf course. The community of more than 19,000 people scored highest in the housing, population health and infrastructure categories, according to the annual US News & World Report Healthiest Communities Ranking report released Wednesday.

Known for its vast and breathtaking mountain ranges, Los Alamos County is the first community to take first place more than twice since US News launched the ranking in 2018, according to the report.

However, the county and the four finalists — Falls Church, Virginia; Douglas County, Colorado; Morgan County, Utah; and Carver County, Minnesota – all scored below average in the housing subcategory.

“A healthy environment is part of what definitely contributes to (Los Alamos County) being a healthy community,” the Los Alamos County Councilman said. Sara Scott, who was not involved in the report, previously told CNN. “People have the opportunity and interest to get out, enjoy our mountains, our trails, biking, horseback riding (and) golf.”

When Los Alamos County ranked No. 1 in 2020, Scott said a caring community that takes health and safety seriously contributes to what makes the county so healthy overall.

This has included pandemic-related donations, volunteer mask making, up-to-date communication between health officials and citizens on safety precautions, and public compliance with the county’s layered public health response. Census responses also helped county officials identify needs and priorities, Scott said.

A rainbow over the fields of Los Alamos County, New Mexico in the fall of 2016.

The top five spots in the environmental rankings went to Florence County, Wisconsin; Iron County, Michigan; Forest County, Wisconsin; Summit County, Colorado; and Broadwater County, Montana. This category takes into account factors such as air quality, safe drinking water, area of ​​land covered by trees, and number of people living within half a mile of a park.

US News and the Center for Applied Research and Engagement Systems at the University of Missouri based the rankings on how nearly 3,000 US communities scored on 89 health and health-related indicators ranked in 10 categories: community vitality, equity, economy, education, environment, food and nutrition, population health, housing, public safety and infrastructure. For each metric, the researchers scaled each community’s values ​​relative to the mean of that metric.

A community’s public health past affects its present

Some tools analyzed county Covid-19 case, death and vaccination rates. Communities with higher cumulative Covid-19 deaths (per 100,000 population) had lower rates of post-secondary education, lower life expectancies and lower proportions of adults who had recently been physically active during their leisure time, according to the report.

Communities with a higher share of people with at least an associate’s degree tended to have higher Covid-19 vaccination and recall rates. Communities with higher vaccination rates also had lower death rates from Covid-19.

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“What I learned from talking to health care and public health experts is that … the kind of public health infrastructure and public health trust you need for a pandemic is something. something you start building, not at the time of the pandemic, but 10 years earlier,” Alex Matthews, then data editor at US News & World Report, told CNN in 2021.

In 2021, many counties that had “very high vaccination rates also scored well in our food nutrition category. And those two things don’t seem related (at first),” Matthews said, adding that in some communities, a fruit and vegetable prescription program connects local farmers with families who need affordable access to products.

“What ends up happening is that, years later, public health authorities come to you and say, ‘Hey, we need you to wear masks,’ or ‘Hey, we need you. you get vaccinated,” you think, “Well, sure. These people are invested in my health, they have invested in it every day. So I’m going to listen to them and I’m going to trust them.”

The best community for mental health

The top four communities in the mental health category were Fairfax County, Virginia; Santa Clara County, California; San Mateo County, California; and Honolulu County, Hawaii.

“Geographically, communities in the DMV region (Washington DC/Maryland/Virginia) score high in this part of our assessment, with Fairfax County leading the way,” said Chris Wolf, senior data analyst at US News.

A woman stretches atop a gazebo in Los Alamos County, New Mexico.

Community measures of “physical health and well-being can also impact mental health as they can limit or support how individuals are able to move through their day and interact with their community”, Susan L. Polan, associate executive director of public affairs and advocacy at the American Public Health Association, previously told CNN. Polan was not involved in the research. In the report, lower mental health scores were associated with higher rates of poverty, teenage smoking and birth rates, and lower life expectancy.

US News produces the rankings to inform community health officials of the best policies and practices for productive and healthy living, according to the report.

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When researching potential homes, people should assess whether the area is “a cohesive community with easy access to healthy food, safe places to play and walk, good schools, diverse residents and leaders, housing affordable, public transit, and a full range of other services,” Polan said. Local governments interested in investing in economically healthy, locally involved communities and businesses are other good signs of healthy residential areas, a she added.

The Healthiest Communities project is the result of support from CVS Health and the Center for Applied Research and Systems Engagement at the University of Missouri, a research institution for community health. The researchers based the ranking on data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Census Bureau and Environmental Protection Agency.

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