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Colorado kids lag on health indicators

Colorado continues to fall behind other states on important indicators of physical health and children here are faring the worst, according to a new report released Thursday by the Colorado Health Foundation.

Colorado has an adult obesity rate of 22 percent, making it the leanest state in a nation where more than one third of adults are obese. But the adult obesity rate is rising faster here than in other states and Colorado is no longer the only state in the nation with an obesity rate lower than 20 percent.

One reason is the state’s rapidly increasing childhood obesity rate, which ranks it 23rd among all states – up from a third-place ranking just a few years ago.

More than 14 percent of all Colorado children are now obese and a third of children here don’t get enough exercise, defined as physical activity that makes them sweat and breathe hard for 20 minutes four days a week.

Income and ethnicity play a role in those statistics, with Hispanic children three times more likely to be obese than white children and poorer children less likely to exercise than their more affluent peers.

Among other child-related highlights of the 2011 Colorado Health Report Card:

  • Poverty: The number of children not covered by public or private health insurance dropped from 12 percent to 9 percent last year, putting Colorado 36th in the nation, up from 44th. But this news is bittersweet, because the increase can be attributed to the increasing number of children now living in poverty and thus eligible for coverage under Medicaid or the Child Health Plan Plus. The poverty rate for Coloradans age 12 and younger rose from 16 percent to 18 percent last year, 20th place among the states.
  • Healthy habits: Colorado tops the nation in the number of adolescents who eat five or more servings per day of fruits and vegetables, 24 percent, and in the number of adolescents who have been sexually active in the past three months, 27 percent.
  • Vaccination: Immunization rates are up, with 71 percent of preschool children receiving all the recommended doses of five key vaccines. But what’s especially concerning to health officials is the number of parents who purposely choose not to vaccinate their children. A survey last year showed Colorado with the nation’s second-highest rate of vaccine refusal. “We anticipate that will change based on dispelling misinformation around autism,” said Michelle Lueck, president of the Colorado Health Institute, which partnered in the report.

‘We would hire a tutor if these were our kids’ grades’

The annual health report card, now in its fifth year, tracks 38 health indicators spanning the five life stages from prenatal care to aging. While some health indicators have improved, the state’s overall grades haven’t changed much over the years.

“The grades are middle of the pack,” said Lueck. “We would hire a tutor if these were our kids’ grades.”

There’s no bell curve in the grade process. An “A” equates to being in the top 10 states, a “B” for being in 11th through 20th position, a “C” for ranking 21 through 30, and so on. In other words, No. 1 is best and no. 50 is worst.

Colorado’s lowest rank is for the number of low birth-weight babies, those born weighing less than 5 pounds, 9 ounces. At nearly 9 percent of babies born, that puts Colorado at 39th among the states.

It is 38th in dental care for children, with just 77 percent of youngsters having seen a dentist for preventive care in the past year. And it is 37th in the rate of adolescent binge drinking, with 25 percent having downed five or more alcoholic drinks in a row within the past month.

The state also fares well in some indicators.

In addition to rates of adult obesity, adolescent sexual activity and adolescent fruit and vegetable consumption, Colorado also leads the nation in the number of older adults getting flu shots, at 59 percent.

The state also has the second-lowest number of adults with high blood pressure, at 17 percent, and the third-lowest number of adults with diabetes, 4.5 percent.

Most other grades fall somewhere in the middle.

Report also highlights prevention efforts

In a supplement to the report card, the Colorado Health Foundation highlights some evidence-based preventive programs that are yielding impressive returns on investment.

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For example, the Cavity Free at Three program, established in 2006, has provided more than 15,000 babies and toddlers from low-income Colorado families with dental services.

A study published in Pediatrics found that average dental expenses for children who see a dentist or dental hygienist by their first birthday were $262 over five years, while those who didn’t get their first oral health checkup until they were 4 or 5 racked up an average of $546 in dental bills.

“I didn’t realize just how important oral health is, but it’s a gateway to the health care delivery system,” Lueck said. “An untreated cavity can become an abcessed tooth and that becomes an infection.”

She put the number of school hours lost by Colorado students every year because of cavities at 8 million.

Likewise, vaccinations pay for themselves very quickly. To get a baby fully immunized requires seven visits to a pediatrician. But for every dollar invested in vaccines, families save an estimated $5 in health care costs later plus $11 in indirect costs, such as lost productivity from parents taking time off from work to care for a sick child.

“There’s a strong case to be made for return on investment,” said Chuck Reymann, vice president of communication for the Colorado Health Foundation. “We sometimes short-shrift preventive health care.”

Examples of other “promising initiatives” highlighted in the report include:

  • Children’s Corridor – The Piton Foundation has identified a 41 square-mile strip of land across northeast Denver and into Aurora that is home to many of the most at-risk children in the Denver metro area. Modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, the Piton Foundation is partnering with neighborhood groups, nonprofits, child-care centers, schools and other foundations to create a coordinated community effort that will help a new generation of children.
  • The Promise Center – The Foundation for Educational Excellence, with the assistance of other philanthropic organizations, is constructing The Promise Center. This will be a community center built on the Denver Public Schools’ Dr. Evie Dennis Campus to serve far northeast Denver neighborhoods, where as many as 20 percent of children live in poverty. This $15 million facility will house a variety of services available to children and their families, including early childhood education and after-school programming.
  • Colorado Prevention Partnership for Success – CPPS aims to reduce substance abuse among Hispanic teens in Adams, Denver, Pueblo and Weld counties. Colorado received a $2.3 million grant in 2010 from the federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention to improve prevention services for Hispanic youth, a population increasingly at risk for substance abuse and binge drinking. Using culturally specific services and policies, CPPS seeks to reduce binge drinking among Hispanic high school youth 5 percent after three years and 8 percent after five years.

Disclosure: The Colorado Health Foundation is a funder of Education News Colorado.