Premature deaths and obesity are two factors to blame for Jackson County’s dip in health rankings this year.

Jackson County dropped to 65th place this year from 60th last year, according to County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Like last year, Hamilton County in central Indiana ranked the best among Indiana counties on its health outcomes, while Scott County to the south of Jackson ranked the worst. Jennings County ranked 84th, and Bartholomew County ranked 17th.

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The annual rankings measure health factors, such as high school graduation rates, obesity, smoking, unemployment, access to healthy foods, the quality of air and water, income and teen births, in nearly every county in the U.S. It also provides a snapshot of how health is influenced by where people live, learn, work and play.

Stephanie Johnson, associate researcher with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, said premature deaths and obesity may be the reason for the five-point drop for Jackson County this year.

She said the swing can happen when a change in measures occurs to a large contributing factor in the study — premature deaths decide 50 percent of the weight in health outcomes.

For premature deaths in 2015, which are based on the years of 2010 through 2012, there were 9,016 premature deaths or years of potential life lost before the age of 75 per 100,000 population. In 2014, the numbers were based on the years of 2008 through 2010 and recorded 8,404 premature deaths, according to the statistics.

Both years exceed this year’s state average of 7,528 premature deaths.

According to a report from the Jackson County Health Department, the number of deaths in Jackson County last year (436) was the highest number recorded since at least 1981.

Health officials said the high number of deaths might be linked to an aging population or a spike in lung cancer cases in the area. Cancer in general was the No. 1 cause of death last year in the county, according to the health report.

Johnson said the health rankings are a way to provide a starting point for change in communities.

“We really believe firmly that where we live matters to our health and that communities have the opportunity to use this data as a conversation point to build cultures of health,” she said.

She said the numbers are valid and reliable, but the challenge is how available the data is through national sources and when they can be obtained by the health rankings program. That means some health categories rely on statistics from a variety of years — not necessarily the most up-to-date information.

“We always encourage folks to look for more recently available data,” she said.

Obesity rates considered

Johnson said obesity is a second factor as to why the county’s rank decreased.

This year’s number, which was based on 2011 statistics, found that 38 percent of adults reported a body mass index of 30 or more. That’s compares with 2014, when the report used numbers from 2010 and found that 32 percent of adults were obese.

The state level was 31 percent for both years.

Molly Marshall, co-chairwoman of Healthy Jackson County, said adult obesity is definitely a concern for the county. She said the county’s health program currently is focused on childhood obesity prevention.

“As it is much easier to prevent obesity than it is to treat, with the hopes we can reach, educate and provide opportunities for healthy behaviors so children today will grow up to be a healthier generation,” she said.

Marshall said obesity is a multifactorial disease and doesn’t have just one cause. She cites access to healthy food, intake of calories (specifically drinks and snacks) and physical inactivity as ways obesity can become a problem.

Physical inactivity, which can result in obesity, was recorded as higher than the state’s average of 28 percent. Jackson County’s percentage, which is based on 2010 numbers, reached 30 percent of adults age 20 and above who reported no leisure time activity.

“If you live in an area that is not safe to walk or ride a bike, it is easy to become inactive,” Marshall said. “At the end of the day, obesity is the result of calories in exceeding calories spent, so diet and exercise are key to preventing obesity as well as treating it.”

Marshall said that, even more than diet and exercise, social and economic factors, such as education, income, family and social support and community safety, play a large role in affecting health.

Lin Montgomery, public health educator/coordinator with the Jackson County Health Department, agreed.

“If our education levels go up, then we have better jobs and then a healthier home and children. You can buy better food, afford to go to a gym, and it’s a trickle-down effect,” she said.

Montgomery recommended taking advantage of community gardens and farmers markets and getting outside to run around and play as a few ways to make positive health decisions.

Other health factors

Other health factors that led to the decline were the high number of uninsured residents, sexually transmitted diseases, unemployment and children in poverty, according to the report.

Measures that tend to stay the same each year are mammography screenings and violent crime rates.

The report also said the factors that Jackson County is “getting better in” are preventable hospital stays, diabetic monitoring and air pollution.

Some health categories have changed here over time in a positive direction. One is adult smoking. Statistics show over time, the number of adult smokers in Jackson County has been reduced from 27 percent to 23 percent.

Staci Ward, 46, of Seymour, is one of them. She quit smoking cigarettes a year ago on the 12th anniversary of her mother’s death from mouth cancer.

“When I visited the doctor, he told me, point blank, ‘When I look at you, I see what all your mom went through,’” she said. “So I told him that I had tried numerous times (to quit) and did not succeed. So he helped find a way.”

Ward said she has taken it day by day to become smoke-free.

“I had a very strong support system, and I knew that there was a chance that I would fail again, but I have never looked back,” she said. “April 1, 2015, was my one-year anniversary. You have to quit for yourself. You cannot quit for others.”

Today, Ward said, she can breathe easier, and her triglycerides and cholesterol have come down. She encourages other smokers to try to quit.

“I know how hard it is, but a strong support system makes it easier,” she said. “You have to take baby steps and reward yourself.”

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To view the county health rankings, visit

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Jackson County health rankings







Premature deaths







Adult obesity

2010;30 percent

2011;30 percent

2012;31 percent

2013;31 percent

2014;32 percent

2015;38 percent

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Molly Marshall with Healthy Jackson County encourages people to check out the state’s Healthy Weight Initiative online at because it gives a background on all of the different angles to attack obesity, with the work focused on policy, systems and environmental change.

“Making the healthy choice the easy choice is the best way to fight obesity,” she said. “The (state’s initiative) gives a lot of information for schools, workplaces and communities to work together to improve health.”


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