LEWISTOWN - Residents of Mifflin and Juniata counties have experienced a dramatic drop in physical health and healthy behavior over the last year, according to the 2012 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index for Pennsylvania.
The yearly study, broken down by U.S. Congressional Districts, reveals that District 5, which includes Mifflin and Juniata counties, has dropped from being the ninth most physically healthy district to the 14th. Out of 18 districts, six experienced a negative shift in ranking, according to the Well-Being Index.
"There's no way to pinpoint the exact reasons why our area has fallen in the rankings," said Dr. John Pagnotto, family medicine physician with Geisinger-Lewistown. "However, there are a number of health concerns in our area, like smoking, obesity and diabetes, that most likely contributed to the negative change."
To determine this year's physical health rankings, the Well-Being Index polled 353,564 participants statewide about their number of sick days in the past month, disease burdens, health problems that get in the way of normal activities, obesity levels, feeling well-rested, energy levels, colds, flu and headaches.
It's apparent, based on daily interaction with patients, that a majority of the issues polled by Gallup are increasing in our area, Pagnotto said. Specifically, obesity, diabetes and smoking related diseases, he said.
Most of the time, said Dr. Raymond Nungesser, regional medical director and family medicine physician at Geisinger-Lewistown, people aren't aware how certain unhealthy habits or behavior are affecting them until it's too late.
"A lot of things we do to ourselves without paying attention to the personal health details," Nungesser said. "Then one day you wake up with a long list of health concerns that could have been prevented."
When it comes to things like obesity, smoking or diabetes, people think, "Well, I've been this way for years, why change now?" But that's a defeatist attitude that can only lead to worsening health problems, Nungesser said.
"It's important to develop a level of self-awareness and take an active approach to health," Nungesser said. "Create a working relationship with your physician to develop a plan to get healthy and stay healthy."
The poor health rating for Mifflin and Juniata counties could also be blamed on the troubled economy, Pagnotto said. For a lot of people living with a disease or health condition, it's difficult to afford regular doctor visits and necessary medication, he said.
"There are a number of pharmacy and health care programs that work to decrease the cost of medication or doctor's appointments," Pagnotto said. "However, some people forgo taking medication every day or limit physician visits because they can't afford it, which only makes the situation worse."
Physicians need to take an active interest in their patients and hold open discussions to determine an affordable way for the patients to consistently get needed care, Pagnotto said. For example, there are a number of statewide programs and services that provide free smoking cessation assistance, decreasing the risk of various cancers for each participant, he said.
Then again, Nungesser said, the drop in health rankings could be because patients are more aware of their physical health and unhealthy behavior than before. When polled for the Well-Being Index, those answering were simply more knowledgeable and honest than previous years, he said.
"It's possible that people are more aware of their diagnoses and health concerns and the poll reflects that," Nungesser said. "So even though the ranking is low now, if we continue educating ourselves and creating a healthy awareness, the numbers should eventually turn around."
Part of making that positive change happen, is developing healthy behaviors and habits in the younger generation that can be continued into adulthood, said Dr. Ozhan Dedeoglu, pediatrician with Geisinger-Lewistown.
"Health problems in adults usually start as children," Dedeoglu said. "When children develop unhealthy habits, its directly related to the habits and behaviors practiced by the parents."
For example, Dedeoglu said, if one parent is obese, it's three times more likely the children will also be obese. If both parents are obese, it's 10 times more likely the children will be as well. The same principle can be applied to parents who smoke, he said.
"It's important to look at what we're doing as parents and make sure we're sending the right messages," Dedeoglu said. "The best way to prevent a child from learning unhealthy behaviors, is for the parents to set regular guidelines and create healthy learning experiences."
Dedeoglu suggests limiting time in front of the computer or television and encouraging an active activity like playing outside or after school sports. If video games are a big deal in the family, invest in games that promote healthy movement and activity like Wii Fit or Wii Sports, he said.
"Try to slow down a little bit and make dinner as a family once a week," Dedeoglu said. "Let your children help prepare the meal and discuss the ingredients. Share with them what makes the meal healthy and why."
Also make sure children keep to a regular sleep schedule and eat breakfast every day before school, Dedeoglu said. Otherwise, they won't be able to concentrate and absorb new material, which can result in lower grades, he added.
"Setting a child up with these healthy behaviors and guidelines prepares them to continue on the right path into adulthood," Dedeoglu said. "Only then can we hope to see a positive change in local, or national, health levels."
For more information about local and national health rankings, visit www.well-beingindex.com. The full Gallup- Healthways Well-Being Index for Pennsylvania is available under the 2012 Well-Being Index Findings heading.