MONTPELIER -- Good pre-natal care and active lifestyles are among the factors allowing Vermont to rank as the No. 1 healthiest state, yet the state could be doing even better, officials said Tuesday.
"It's something that means a lot to us in terms of ensuring that Vermonters have healthy, productive lives, the best quality of life in the country," Gov. Peter Shumlin said as he joined Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen in making the announcement of the state's top ranking.
Shumlin said it was the fourth year in a row that Vermont had won the title of healthiest state in the United States, but Lauren Mihajlov, spokeswoman for the United Health Foundation, said it was actually the sixth year in a row Vermont had done so.
The state's record shows improvement is achievable: It ranked 20th in 1990, the first year the foundation did the rankings.
"Vermont's strengths include its number one position for all health determinants combined, which includes ranking in the top 10 states for a high rate of high school graduation, a low violent crime rate, a low incidence of infectious disease, a low prevalence of low birth weight infants, high per capita public health funding, a low rate of uninsured population, and ready availability of primary care physicians," the report's authors wrote.
Nice laurels, both state and foundation officials said, but don't rest on them. About a quarter of Vermonters are obese, and the state's rate of obesity has grown about 75 percent since 1995.
"If you decline in every one of your indicators from one year to the next, you can still maintain your No. 1 ranking if everyone else does worse," said Mihajlov.
While Vermont ranked No. 1 overall and No. 1 in "determinants" -- factors that influence the results -- it ranked No. 5 in the country in outcomes, the report said.
Is that a sign the state is failing to live up to its advantages?
"We see a lot of potential for Vermont to do even better than they're doing," Mihajlov said. "Even though Vermont has a lot of lessons they can share with other states, they have lessons they can learn as well," she added.
One area Chen called troubling and likely difficult to address: Vermont ranks 28th best in its cancer death rate, meaning a slight majority of other states do better on that measure. Another subcategory ranking lower than most that Vermont got was for binge drinking, for which it was found to be the 27th best state.
Vermont had the 11th-best childhood immunization rate, with 92.8 percent of kids up to date on their shots, the report said. That ranking came in a year when the Legislature debated and rejected a measure ending the "philosophical exemption" that allows some parents to skip shots for their kids if they're skeptical about the shots' health effects.
Mihajlov said it was difficult to explain one set of results found in the foundation's survey: Respondents were asked how many days in the previous month they "could not perform work or household tasks due to mental illness." The median response from Vermonters was 3.7 days, she said. The national figure was 3.8 percent. Mihajlov called the findings "shocking."