America’s Health Rankings provide a snapshot of Kentucky’s health challenges, but also of its recent progress

Kentucky page of report from United Health Foundation; to enlarge or download, click on it.

By Ben Chandler
Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky

As we move into another year, the discussion of New Year’s resolutions and the noble quest for doing some things differently and better comes to the forefront. More than half of all such resolutions are health-related – namely losing weight, better diet, and regular exercise.

Each of us will decide individually what, if anything, we would like to improve during 2022. And perhaps collectively, as a commonwealth, we should consider areas for “self-improvement.” A review of the recently released 2021 America’s Health Rankings might be a good thought-starter. The rankings, released by the United Health Foundation, provide a snapshot of Kentucky’s overall health relative to other states. It does not merely “rank” states against one another; it evaluates each state through a set of health, environmental and socioeconomic categories to help shed light on our health challenges and successes.

The rankings are created to help states determine health benchmarks and establish goals moving forward.

This year’s report reinforces the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky’s priorities regarding how we can collectively create a healthier commonwealth in 2022 and beyond. The foundation’s priorities include combating obesity, reducing diabetes by improving nutrition, and physical exercise.

Indeed, the report validates these priorities. It indicates 36.6 percent of Kentucky adults are obese (compared to 31.9% nationally), a higher percentage than all but five states. Kentucky ranks 50th in two other categories of concern – the amount of vegetables and fruit consumed, and physical activity and exercise.

It is my hope that individual Kentuckians, their communities, their local and state government representatives, and health-care advocates – among others – can have open, candid dialogue about increasing opportunities for physical activity and ensuring more access to healthy food. For Kentucky school children, stronger nutritional standards, increased participation in school nutrition programs, and quality physical education are needed.

As an organization whose mission is to address unmet health needs of Kentuckians by developing and influencing policy, improving access to care, reducing health disparities, and promoting health equity, we view these rankings as a call to action for leaders in government, health care, education and social services … as well as for individual Kentuckians.

Though Kentucky has the second highest percentage of adults who smoke tobacco products, there is a ray of good news: Smoking among adults has declined 26 percent during recent years – from 29% in 2011 to 21.4% in 2021.

While that is a positive trend, there is much more work to be done. Every Kentuckian who smokes should strongly consider quitting as a 2022 resolution. Tobacco-use prevention and cessation programs are available, though more funding is critically needed.

It is encouraging to see we are ranked 14th for percentage of residents (93.6%) covered by private or public health insurance. But barriers to health-care access remain. Consider that Kentucky ranks 42nd for percentage of homes lacking reliable internet. Kentuckians need this access to tap into telehealth services. Though telehealth was less common pre-pandemic, it is here to stay and a necessity for residents with limited access to transportation or who live an hour or more from the nearest health-care provider.

Another noteworthy but negative item from the report: Kentucky ranks 45th for non-medical drug use among adults and 42nd for drug deaths. Kentucky’s substance-use epidemic is spiraling in a dangerous direction. There is a crisis-level need for funding and support for expanded prevention, treatment and mitigation services.

While some may view the rankings as daunting, it’s important we view them as points of reference for Kentuckians’ health. Now is the time to challenge one another – to push for new and better ways to make our entire commonwealth healthier.

Ben Chandler is president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

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