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Survey: Fairfax County Healthiest in Virginia

Socio-economic factors play big role in health of population, health ranking report shows.

For the third year in a row, Fairfax County outranked all of Virginia's other cities and counties as the healthiest in the state, according to a new survey being released Tuesday.

Northern Virginia fared well in the study, with Arlington coming in second and Loudoun County coming in third. 

Socio-economic factors accounted for 40 percent of Fairfax County's top spot, said Julie Willems Van Dijk, associate scientist at the University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute, who is part of the survey team. The 2012 County HealthRankings, produced by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, ranks the health of counties in all 50 states according to how healthy people are and how long they live.

"The Fairfax County population is highly educated, highly employed, has few children in poverty, has good levels of social support and a lower rate of crime," Willems Van Dijk noted. 

“I am very pleased that Fairfax County has been rated the healthiest jurisdiction in Virginia," said Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "Our community benefits from our investment in a world-class system of parks, open spaces and recreational opportunities.  This survey is a real validation of what we already know, that Fairfax County is a great place to live, work, play and grow older comfortably.”

Fairfax County's unemployment rate is 4.9 percent compared to a state average of 6.9 percent. Petersburg City, which is about 25 miles south of Richmond and came in last in the survey, has an unemployment rate of 13 percent.

Mortality rates counted for 50 percent of the ranking. Out of 100,000 people in Fairfax County, fewer than 4,000 die before age 75, according to the rankings.

Two percent of Fairfax County's population (more than 16,000 people) is described as "low income and do not live close to a grocery store," according to the report. In urban areas, that means someone has to live within a mile of a grocery store. The county with the toughest problem feeding their low-income residents is Scott County, where 37 percent of that population does not have access to healthy food (its population density is 44 people per square mile, whereas Fairfax County's is 2,455 per square mile). 

The worst news for Fairfax County in the health report card?

  • Fairfax County residents are overweight: One in four of Fairfax County's adult population, 24 percent, is considered obese (a body mass index of greater than 30), according to the survey, which relied mainly on federal government reports for its information. Virginia's counties average 28 percent and rank anywhere from 19 percent to 39 percent on the obesity scale.
  • About one in five (19 percent) of adults age 20 and older report "no leisure time physical activity" in Fairfax County. The national average was 21 percent and the state average was 24 percent. Virginia's Tazewell County, located in the southwestern part of the state, came in at the highest rate—38 percent—of residents who have no time for physical activity.
  • Fairfax County ranked dead last in the state for "physical environment." The main reason for that, according to Willems Van Dijk, are the average number of days (27) the county experiences air pollution "ozone days."
  • Fairfax County also has a lot of fast food—55 percent of all of its restaurants, according to the study. The national average is 25 percent and the state average is 50 percent.

"If Fairfax County residents would get out of their cars and bike to work that might solve part of their problems," said Willems Van Dijk.

The 2012 County Health Rankings report is released each year in hopes that the data "will drive action in the community," Willems Van Dijk said. "It's a wake-up call to citizens. Just like when you go for a check-up at the doctor's. 'What can we do to improve or sustain our good health?'"

The group plans to make a "best practices" Web site available to the public and invite local communities to apply for $25,000 grants to "celebrate health moving forward." Patch will update this report when that information becomes available.

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Editor's note: Patch has updated the story with a statement from Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

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