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Behaviors boost county health rank

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Tim Brady knew he would die before his time if he kept smoking.

His grandfather died at 72. His father died at 64. Both had heart disease from smoking heavily all their adult lives.

But Brady, 48, of Columbus, has been smoke-free now for more than a year, taking full advantage of cessation programs in a county that statistics show is kicking bad habits in general.

The University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released annual results last week on the health of people across the nation, including Indiana’s 92 counties.

Bartholomew County leapfrogged 29 other counties in beneficial health behaviors in just four years, rising from 59th place in the 2012 report to 30th place in the 2013 report. In the past year alone, its ranking improved five places.

Health behaviors consist of adult smoking, adult obesity, physical inactivity, excessive drinking, sexually transmitted

infections, teen birth rates and deaths from motor vehicle crashes, according to the annual health rankings.

Bartholomew County’s overall health ranking of 33rd continued gradual improvement from 34rd last year and 41st in 2011. Overall rankings consider counties’ performance in six broad categories that include health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors, physical environment, residents’ length of life and their quality of life.

Brown County topped all neighboring counties by ranking seventh overall, a slip of one from the previous year. Johnson County was next at 15th, followed by Bartholomew, Decatur (38th), Shelby (61st), Jackson (63rd) and Jennings (87th).

Bartholo-mew County’s top-third placement overall and its dramatic improvement in health behaviors can be credited to different community groups making a difference, said Beth Morris, director of community health partnerships at Columbus Regional Hospital.

Adult smoking has fallen four percentage points in Bartholomew County over the past three years, statistics show. It dropped from 26 percent in 2011 to 24 percent in 2012, and then to 22 percent in the most updated tally.

Stephanie Truly, tobacco prevention coordinator for Healthy Communities, said Bartholomew County is leading the way in the statewide fight against public smoking.

She and her team are using a $117,000 state grant, issued in 2011, to provide no-smoking signs to businesses, educate them about the coming ordinance change and offer the kinds of programs that help people kick the habit.

Those programs include:

n High School Heroes, a program in which student leaders in local high schools talk to fifth-graders about smoking.

n Tobacco abuse and consequences presentations, in which trained volunteers work with school teachers on presentations.

n Concentrated efforts to influence families of students in the Head Start early education program. Head Start families, which have to meet income guidelines to qualify, smoke at an elevated rate of about 55 percent, Truly said.

The Columbus City Council in December strengthened its smoking ordinance, banning smoking in all public places, including bars, taverns and private clubs, effective June 1. The changes will make Columbus’ smoking ordinance one of the strongest in the state, Truly said.

“We’re trying to remove all the barriers for people to quit smoking,” Truly said. “We feel like people are getting the message.”

Brady, a former two-pack-a-day smoker who quit Jan. 25, 2012, said now is the time for others to kick the smoking habit.

“If I can do it, anybody can do it,” he said.

Brady, who has three children ages 17 to 25, said his motivation came from a desire to see his unborn grandchild grow to be an adult. That motivation, combined with state-funded medication and a supportive cessation class, helped him quit smoking in two to three weeks.

He had tried to quit smoking three times before. The difference was having people who care, he said.

Besides smoking rates, birth rates for mothers age 15 to 19 in Bartholomew County also are declining. They dropped from 58 per 1,000 to 54 per 1,000 in the past year, continuing a downward trend that began at least a couple of years before that.

Morris said healthy behaviors in Bartholomew County are being encouraged in a variety of ways.

The People Trails have been incrementally expanding, with more expansions to come. Schools are serving healthier lunches than they did just a few years ago. Reach, a program of Healthy Communities, is encouraging people to exercise, even if it means nothing more than biking to work or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

A federal grant helped Healthy Communities purchase bike racks that dot the city as an invitation for people to use pedal power.

The Columbus Bike Co-op, a nonprofit community bike garage, teaches residents practical skills about maintaining or building bicycles.

“I think there’s more awareness in general about healthy eating and exercise wherever you look,” said Morris, who added that she sees the trend continuing well into the future.

One health behavior that showed a worsening trend was the number of sexually transmitted diseases. Bartholomew County’s rate of 208 per 100,000, according to this year’s report, was an increase from 149 per 100,000 last year.

Carla Wolff, assistant director of the Bartholomew County Healthy Department’s nursing division, said she doubts the spike means more sexual disease. It more likely is due to people responding to what they see on television, hear on the radio or read in a magazine or newspaper, she said.

“People see that their symptoms might be a sign that they have something,” Wolff said. “That’s when they get tested.”

While Morris said the report is important, she cautioned that some of the data are a little outdated. Information for teen birth rate statistics, for example, was compiled from data collected between 2004 and 2010.

“It’s still valuable information,” she said. “It gets the word out that people in our county are making a difference.”

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