Placer County ranks among 50 healthiest U.S. communities

Want to live in one of the 50 healthiest communities in the nation without leaving the Sacramento region? Well, just move on over to Placer County.

In an article released Tuesday, U.S. News & World Report ranked Placer at No. 35 on its list of the nation’s Healthiest Communities for 2021 after examining metrics that drive better health for 3,000 counties. Teaming with researchers from the University of Missouri and independent experts, the magazine’s staff weighed data on education, housing, nutrition, environment, equity and other factors that affect health.

Placer was the highest-ranking county in California, with Santa Clara ranked 40th and San Mateo 43rd.

The list of Healthiest Communities numbers 500 counties overall. A few others in the region made the list: Nevada at 267th, El Dorado at 284th and Solano at 425th. Placer, Nevada and El Dorado counties are all within easy distances of extensive green belts in state and national parks or forests.

Robert Weygandt, chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors, welcomed news that Placer had ranked so high on this year’s list, although he said he wasn’t altogether surprised since the county ranks highly on similar state measures.

“Our residents … value healthier lifestyles,” Weygandt said. “We’re lucky to live in a great place in the state of California where people can get outside and enjoy outside activities.”

In 2000, Weygandt said, the board started preserving green belts for public use, beginning by buying 1,000 acres for what is now Hidden Falls Regional Park.

“We did not know if it would be utilized,” he said. “We were worried that we might be making a bad investment, but it has become so popular that we actually have to use a reservation system most of the time.”

Numbers show Placer’s success

The county, he said, also has worked to expand the number of four-year colleges to assure employers an educated workforce and has tried to diversify the types of businesses offering jobs in the area. Several numbers from the Healthiest Communities rankings speak to the county’s success:

7.7%: The county’s poverty rate is just over half that of the national median of 14.2%.

68,506: The number of jobs within a 45-minute commute compares with a median of 28,413 for Placer’s peer group in the ranking.

$89,691: The median household income in Placer compares with a statewide median of $75,235.

Weygandt said the data from the analysis highlights what the county has done well but also provides some information on where they can do some things better. Placer County received its highest Healthiest Communities scores for population health and economy, an 84 in each, and its lowest scores for equity and housing, 58 and 55, respectively.

Residents post an average life expectancy of 82.2 years, nearly five years greater than the United States average. While 10.6% of Americans do not have insurance, fewer than 5% of Placer County residents report not having it. The county also has fewer smokers, 11.7% of its population, compared with an average of 18.2% among its peers in the survey.

Social determinants of health play a huge role

The county’s Department of Health & Human Services has been a part of leading conversations around homelessness and other hard-to-tackle issues that often determine how good someone’s health is, Weygandt said.

Dr. Rob Oldham, the department’s director, said these and other social determinants of health are known to play a huge role in what kind of health people will enjoy.

“I slept at the Dallas airport or tried to sleep at the Dallas airport last night, with people walking by all night,” said Oldham, who returned Tuesday from a trip to Tennessee, “and that’s what some people have to do every night. … All these stressors really can compound. It makes it so hard to stay mentally healthy, physically healthy.”

He quickly added: “It’s not just people experiencing homelessness, it’s people worried about housing insecurity. We have people who are paying over 50%, 60%, 70% of their earnings toward housing, so it can really be a huge impact on mental and physical health.”

What’s interesting, noted the U.S. News staff, is that these social determinants appeared to have an impact on the vitality and resilience of communities facing the COVID-19 health pandemic.

The magazine’s Healthiest Communities analysis, which is funded by the Aetna Foundation, found that a majority of the counties on the top 500 list reported lower rates of COVID-19 infections and death. Placer reported 5,956.9 cases and 74.8 deaths per 100,000, compared with national COVID-19 case rates of 9,923 and 178 deaths per 100,000.

Residents of the Healthiest Communities not only tend to have access to health care, but also to income and infrastructure that allows them to exercise and eat in a way that staves off chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. Those preexisting illnesses increase vulnerability to COVID-19 and other opportunistic infections.

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Cathie Anderson covers health care for The Bee. Growing up, her blue-collar parents paid out of pocket for care. She joined The Bee in 2002, with roles including business columnist and features editor. She previously worked at papers including the Dallas Morning News, Detroit News and Austin American-Statesman.

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