Humboldt County – Amid stunning beauty, a sad health profile

I don’t want to beat up on Humboldt County. I’ve driven through it a few times and it’s quintessential far northern California -- beautiful, alluring, with Redwoods everywhere (the county motto is The Home of the Redwoods), a scenic coastline, pretty towns, friendly folk. The kind of place that sets an urban mind to wondering:  Could I live in this lush green paradise?

I’d like to spend more time there, for sure. But after a close look at the latest California Department of Public Health statistics, I might want to remain a visitor and not a resident. The county’s astounding beauty and apparent serenity disguise some truly disturbing health numbers.

The department recently released its County Health Status Profiles 2012, which provides a fascinating look at the leading causes of death for the years 2008-2010 for each of the state’s 58 counties. I just slalomed through 19 categories of death rates and Humboldt was a blinking neon sign. Let me take you on a tour.

In its overall death rate from all causes, Humboldt ranked next to worst, 57th, with 865 deaths per 100,000 people. That compares to, say, Santa Clara County, with 509 deaths/100,000, or Marin County with 527. Quite a spread.

Or try the next category, deaths from all cancers. Humboldt ranked 56th, with 185 per 100,000. I looked for another California county with a similar population number and poor, rural Imperial County fit the bill. Its numbers? 126 per 100,000, about a third lower.

Comb through the categories and there’s hardly any relief in the rankings for Humboldt County: deaths from colorectal cancer – 51st; lung cancer – 40th; female breast cancer – 51st; prostate cancer – 52nd; diabetes – 49th; Alzheimer’s – 41st; coronary heart disease – 39th . Some of these constitute the county’s not-so-bad health outcomes – as if being ranked 41st out of 58 is something to celebrate. I don’t pretend that they do.

But back to reality. For stroke, the county ranks dead last, 58th, and is the only county in the state that failed to meet the “healthy people 2010 national objective” for that category.

The numbers are numbing. In deaths from chronic lower respiratory, it ranks 54th; liver disease, 50th; accidents, meaning unintentional injuries, 56th; suicides, 55th; firearm deaths, 52nd; and drug-induced deaths, 57th

Overall, it ranks 50th or lower in 13 of the 19 categories.

What could possibly explain this? Many of these categories line up with the characteristics explored in a 2008 study of suicide by the mental health branch of Humboldt County’s Department of Health and Human Services. It concluded that counties with high suicide rates “are largely rural, have lower median household income and 85 percent of counties had a higher proportion of people living in poverty as compared to the national percentage.”

 A number of rural California counties fit this profile, Humboldt among them. The Census Bureau shows that Humboldt County’s poverty level is substantially higher than the state average, and its household income is one-third lower.  But other California counties have income and poverty profiles just as bad – in some cases considerably worse – without the widespread health problems.

 Perhaps the mix of poverty and rural character is a factor, creating a physical and socio-cultural isolation that could be affecting health.  The physical isolation is made emphatically clear by Census figures: Humboldt’s density is 38 persons per square mile; the state’s average is 239.

 In Humboldt County, the isolation we outsiders perceive as beauty may affect locals differently. Just think about the weather and the land. With rainfall averaging from 40 to 100 inches a year, perhaps there is a psychological dimension these statistics only hint at. The county encompasses 2.3 million acres, 80 percent of which, according to the county, “is forestlands, protected redwoods and recreation areas.” Eighty percent unsettled. Now that’s isolation.

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