County comparison of health statistics finds Merrimack County is average – mostly

Monitor staff
Monday, April 03, 2017

A wide-ranging measure of health and wellness that compares New Hampshire’s counties finds that Merrimack County is pretty average with a few exceptions: Some good, such as a lower likelihood of dying in drunken-driving accidents, and some bad, such as a higher incidence of sexually transmitted disease.

The annual County Health Rankings compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute collects a disparate data set for most of the nation’s 3,141 counties, including the 10 in New Hampshire, and ranks them.

Measures include access to health care, tobacco use, income, premature births, obesity, child poverty, sexually transmitted infections, drug use, number of physicians and dentists – and even what might be considered a couch potato measurement, more formally called “inactivity index.”

Adding these all up and the numbers indicate that Rockingham County on the Seacoast “ranks healthiest” while Coos County in the North Country ranks as “unhealthiest.” Rockingham is also the richest county in New Hampshire and Coos is the poorest, by most measures.

Merrimack County is generally in the middle, close to the New Hampshire average, with a few exceptions.

It had the lowest, by far, percentage of driving deaths caused by alcohol – 15 percent, half the rate of the next-lowest county.

Merrimack County is average in percentage of adults who report heavy drinking, so if this data holds true then apparently residents are better than other those in other counties at knowing when they’re too impaired to get behind the wheel.

Also on the plus side, Merrimack County residents smoke less than the state as a whole: 13 percent of adults are “current smokers,” compared to 16 percent overall.

On the minus side, the county is slightly heavier than the state as a whole – 30 percent of adults are obese, compared to 28 percent throughout New Hampshire – and we have a much higher rate of the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia – 304 cases per 100,000 people, roughly 10 percent above the state average of 271 cases per 100,000 people.

One not-surprising-but-unhappy fact reflected in data the report has collected over eight years involved the opioid crisis.

“We see from this year’s report that drug-related overdose deaths especially among 25- to 44-year-olds are having a significant effect on premature death rates across the country,” said Lisa Morris of the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.

In 2014, Merrimack County saw a 9 percent increase in the total loss of years of “potential life” due to premature deaths, as compared to 2011.

That figure is compiled by comparing the current and historical patterns for the ages at which people died. Its increase probably reflects the sharp rise in death rates among younger adults attributed to the opioid crisis.

To examine the data more closely, check the interactive graphic at countyhealthrankings.org.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)