PITTSFIELD -- For the fourth year in a row, Berkshire County ranked 11th out of Massachusetts’ 14 counties in a national health survey that evaluates mortality and the rate of sickness.
The Berkshires’ position in the County Health Rankings, which are compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin’s Public Health Institute, has remained unchanged since the first survey in 2010.
The rankings incorporate data related to morbidity or sickness, and premature death, which is described as years of life lost before the age of 75.
The low-median income of county residents compared to the rest of the state, and the rural character of the Berkshires contributed to the county’s poor mortality rate, according to local health officials.
"We are used to seeing the data, but we were surprised the first year," said Laura Kittross, director of the Berkshire County Boards of Health Association, Inc. "I don’t think we can overestimate what [the survey results] say, but I don’t think we can underestimate [the survey] either."
Dukes County [Martha’s Vineyard] was ranked as the county with the best health outcomes in Massachusetts. Hampden County [Pioneer Valley] was ranked last.
According to the survey, Berkshire County is ranked in the bottom third of Massachusetts counties in social, economic and health factors with a higher rate of obesity, smoking, excessive drinking, motor vehicle crashes and teen births, than the rest of the state.
The county was ranked fourth in clinical care use.
Kittross said Massachusetts’ standard of living is higher than most states in the country, which provides some context for the numbers.
"Being in the bottom third [in Massachusetts] is still pretty good compared with the rest of the country, but obviously we’d like to be the healthiest we can be and we need improvement," Kittross said.
Berkshire health officials’ priorities include improvements in the areas of mental health, teen pregnancy, obesity, substance abuse, smoking, and motor vehicle accidents. However, Kittross said the county still does not have a strategic plan to deal with those issues.
"I think the best thing about the County Health Rankings is that they have got us all talking," Kittross said.
Berkshire County Public Health Alliance Director Sandra Martin is concerned with the impact that the low median income has
"Income is the most closely associated [factor] with health," Martin said.
Martin said it will take a culture change in the Berkshires before health outcomes improve.
Contrary to popular belief, Martin said, residents of rural communities use motor vehicles more than they walk.
"Everybody’s perception is we are wealthy and healthy, but the truth is we are not," Martin said.
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