Health a mixed bag in Pitkin County |

Health a mixed bag in Pitkin County

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Cancer is the leading cause of death in Pitkin County, but the rate of local cancer deaths is not out of the ordinary. It’s comparable to the state’s as a whole.

Residents of Pitkin County are, however, more likely to develop skin cancer than their counterparts across Colorado. Locals also are more likely to drink more and weigh less than Coloradans in general, and those who wind up in the hospital with an injury are more likely to blame a skiing or snowboarding mishap than they are a car wreck.

The health and health woes of area residents are detailed in a state-mandated Pitkin County Public Health Improvement Plan. A new, five-year plan was presented to county commissioners last week.

Local health demographics helped shape the plan, which outlines five priorities of Community Health Services, a nonprofit organization that works with the county. Those priorities include improving access to health care, mental-health treatment, substance-abuse prevention and treatment, addressing the county’s aging population, and raising awareness of radon and reducing exposure to it. In addition, the local community health office is assessing its ability to meet requirements imposed by the Colorado Public Health Act – the legislation that requires adoption of the Health Improvement Plan in the first place.

“Historically, we’ve been a small nursing service,” said Liz Stark, Community Health director.

Jordana Sadella joined the Community Health staff in January as public health planner and will be involved in the plan’s implementation, Stark said.

Community Health will partner with other local agencies to accomplish many of the goals proposed in the plan; some efforts, in fact, are already a reality, including the opening of a new county detox center, the planning for a continuing-care retirement community in Basalt and the provision of free home test kits to check radon levels. (Radon is a naturally occurring gas, but the county has a high potential for harmful indoor levels of radon, which is the second-leading cause of lung cancer.)

Addressing accessible health care and controlling costs is the goal of the Aspen Valley Health Alliance, a pilot effort by the county’s five largest employers. Making a comprehensive list of available health programs and services that help individuals determine eligibility for aid is another priority for Community Health.

All of the efforts might play a role in changing the statistics related to the leading causes of death in Pitkin County. Between 2005 and 2009, cancer topped the list, followed by cardiovascular disease, unintentional injury, suicide and respiratory issues.

Prostate and breast cancer are the most common types of cancer in both Pitkin County and Colorado, but the county has a higher incidence of skin cancer than does the state overall.

“You can attribute that to folks being outside all the time, doing all the activities and things that they do here,” Sadella said. “All the other types of cancer are within a comparable range to the rest of the state.”

But Commissioner Rob Ittner questioned what he called the “cancer phenomenon” felt locally.

“Two of my neighbors died of cancer within the past five years. They were both my age,” he said.

“As long as we control infectious diseases, we’re either going to die from heart disease or cancer,” said Dr. Morris Cohen, county health officer. Genetics play a role in cancer among younger individuals, he said.

While injuries are the third-leading cause of death locally and vehicle accidents cause most of those fatal injuries, it’s tripping and falling that result in most hospitalizations for those who are 60 or older. But among all residents, skiing spills and the like (falls associated with snow sports) were to blame for the most injuries resulting in hospitalization between 2005 and 2009, Community Health noted.

Among communicable diseases, chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease, is the most common in Pitkin County. Giardia, often contracted by drinking contaminated water, was a distant second (18 reported cases between 2005-2007), likely because outdoorsy locals drink from rivers and streams in the backcountry, Stark suspects.

According to a 2009-10 assessment, 18 percent of Pitkin County residents are overweight, and 12 percent are obese. The local population is in far better shape than the state’s population as a whole; 36 percent of Coloradans are overweight, and 20 percent are obese.

On the other hand, about 73 percent of adults in Pitkin County report having had at least one drink of alcohol in the past month, more than the 64 percent statewide and the roughly 59 percent nationwide, according to the Community Health report. Locally, about 14 percent of the populace can be defined as chronic drinkers (having two or more drinks per day in the previous month) compared with 6.7 percent across Colorado and 5.6 percent across the nation. Binge drinking in the county is similar to Colorado as a whole, involving about 20 percent of the populace.

The rate of illicit drug use in the county is 8 percent, according to a 2012 survey, compared with 1.7 percent across the country.

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