Alysia Ducuara: Utah is one of the healthiest states in the nation — but we need to do more

July 24, 2023 (Salt Lake Tribune)

Our culture of health is declining in Utah, and we need to move in the opposite direction to have the best quality of life.

I’m the executive director of Get Healthy Utah, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering a culture of health in Utah communities. When I tell people about Get Healthy Utah’s mission, I often get a response along these lines: “Alysia, we don’t really need to work on improving health in Utah — we’re already one of the healthiest states in the nation!”

That may be true. Utah does fare well in many national rankings of state health. We have low smoking rates and low drinking rates. Many residents love being active outdoors in our beautiful landscapes, and we have one of the highest life expectancies in the nation.

But comparing ourselves to other states to measure health does not provide the full picture. In many key indicators of poor health, Utah trails the national average by only a few years.

In 2021, 31.8 percent of Utahns were obese — a steep increase from 19.5% in 2000, and only one percentage point below the national average. Sixty-five percent of Utahns are overweight or obese. If current trends continue, that puts us only three years behind the national average.

For age-adjusted mortality rates, a measurement of deaths from all causes for the entire population, Utah used to perform significantly better than the national average. But while the national average improved over the decade leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, Utah’s rates hardly budged.

In mental health, Utah is struggling. The number of Utahns reporting poor mental health in the last thirty days jumped to 24.3% in 2021, two percentage points higher than the national average. And according to a report by the University of Utah Health, Utah’s suicide rate is nearly double the nationwide rate.

The data regarding children’s health in Utah is sobering. Over 10% of fifth graders in Utah are obese. Almost a third of children in the WIC program are overweight or obese. Higher body weight is correlated with higher risks of diseases like type 2 diabetes, which has been increasing among children worldwide.

Research shows our children are not eating enough fruits and vegetables, nor getting enough physical activity. According to a recent CDC study of young Utah children, more than half are not eating vegetables daily, and more than a quarter are not eating fruit daily. But two-thirds of the children had a sugar-sweetened beverage during the previous week. Only about 1 out of 4 Utah teens meet physical activity recommendations, and 13.8% of teen girls met recommendations in 2021.

While we should celebrate the things that Utah is doing well, we shouldn’t be satisfied with being only a little less unhealthy than other states. We must recognize areas in which we can improve.

We should focus on building healthier communities, so everyone can live the healthiest life possible.

In particular, government leaders locally and statewide must recognize that the policies they pass affect people’s health. Where we live affects our health profoundly — life expectancy in the Avenues is more than a decade higher than in South Salt Lake.

It’s not that the government needs to launch a bunch of new initiatives to promote healthy behaviors (though I wouldn’t complain!) Rather, they need to understand that the community-building policies they pass and the infrastructure they build have a direct impact on health, and they need to make conscientious decisions.

A report recently released by the Utah Foundation provides examples of how ordinary policy decisions affect the level of physical activity in a community. For example: Policies on zoning and public transportation affect whether people choose to walk, bike or ride the bus to their destinations instead of drive. When streets are designed with pedestrians and cyclists in mind, and when law enforcement is increased to keep speeds low and the streets safe, more people choose to be active. Utah already has great open spaces and parks, but policy decisions affect how and whether people visit those spaces.

Get Healthy Utah envisions a Utah where a culture of health permeates every Utah community. We work toward that vision by convening leaders across all sectors to align their work towards better health. Every Utahn, regardless of their job or role in the community, can help build a healthier state. We can support policies that empower all of us to make healthy choices.

Let’s not pat ourselves on the back for being slower than the rest of the country at sliding into poor health. Instead, let’s turn our unhealthy trends around and build a truly healthy Utah — one where all people have the opportunity to live the healthiest life possible.

Alysia Ducuara is the Executive Director of the non-profit Get Healthy Utah with over 10 years of experience in community health in Utah. She has a Master’s Degree in Health Education & Promotion from the University of Utah.

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