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As the nation continues to confront disturbing increases in obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, it is good to see new reports that suggest these trends are reversible. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and other health advocacy groups have noted the first decline in childhood obesity rates in decades.
Researchers documented the encouraging change in several large cities, including a 5.5 percent decline in the number of obese children in New York City from 2007 to 2011, while Philadelphia saw a 4.7 percent decline over a similar period. Researchers also found a 13.3 percent decline in Mississippi between 2005 and 2011, a state perennially rated as the unhealthiest in the nation.
"Growing evidence suggests that strong, far-reaching changes - those that make healthy foods available in schools and communities and integrate physical activity into people's daily lives - are working to reduce childhood obesity rates," states the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report.
Meanwhile another report, "America's Health Rankings - 2012" by the United Health Foundation, shows what can happen when a state focuses on improving health. For the fourth straight year Vermont tops the list of healthiest states. Early to the effort to promote exercise, better nutrition, and with high per capita public health funding, Vermont moved steadily from 17th in 1998 to its top ranking today.
In fact the report had plenty of good news for New England, where all six states rank among the top 10 healthiest, including Connecticut at number six. The report pointed to Connecticut's low prevalence of smoking, low incidence of infectious disease, high immunization rates and low rate of uninsured.
The biggest challenge remains promoting better health and reducing obesity among poor, minority populations in our inner cities. Healthy food choices, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, are often more costly than fatty, salty processed foods. Lack of parks and recreational outlets encourage sedentary lifestyles. And inner-city bodegas lack the variety of healthy food choices found in large suburban supermarkets.
The state rankings show Connecticut with a nutritional gap as yawning as its public education gap. While 24.5 percent of Connecticut residents (and 21 percent of its white residents) are considered obese, obesity is more prevalent among non-Hispanic blacks at 41.4 percent and Hispanics at 28.6 percent.
Promoting healthier lifestyles for all Americans will be critical to keeping the cost of health care manageable. Thanks to advances in medicine Americans are living longer, with fewer deaths from heart disease and cancer, despite increases in chronic illness, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. But it will be far more economical, and pleasant, if Americans can improve their health and reduce the need for modern medicine to rescue them.