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How healthy is Ohio? Depends on where you live

A red house sits on a street in Columbus, across from a "One Way" road sign.
Collin Williams
Ohio's urban and suburban areas fared better than their rural counterparts.

Global leaders want a way to measure a country's success – beyond just economic output. So, each year the United Nations ranks countries based on life expectancy, average education levels and gross income. It’s called the Human Development Index (HDI).

Some Ohio researchers decided to use this measuring tool on each of the state’s 88 counties. Michael Hartnett, a policy analyst at Scioto Analysis, found geographical inequities in human development across the state: suburban areas thrived, while rural communities struggled.

Overall, Ohio struggled the most with health factors. Its life expectancy is one of the worst in the nation, ranking 38th. In 2020, life expectancy dropped to 75.3 years, a year below the national average.

Local and state officials should be looking at public health programs and figuring out ways to improve life expectancy and to overall make populations healthier,” he said.

Geographical inequities

Delaware County, in suburban Columbus, consistently scored the highest from 2019 to 2021. Clermont outside of Cincinnati, Geauga outside of Cleveland and Union outside of Columbus all had high HDI scores. Urban areas weren’t far behind. Franklin, Hamilton and Cuyahoga counties all scored similarly, in the middle of the pack.

“This is sort of an expected outcome. If you think of what a stereotypical suburban area around a city looks like, it's probably going to include more upper middle class college degree professionals with higher incomes,” Hartnett said.

A map of Ohio shows that rural areas score lower on the human development index than Ohio's suburban and rural areas.
Scioto Analysis
Hartnett said the study shows that some geographical areas in the state struggle with wellbeing.

On the opposite end, southern Appalachian counties like Jackson and Adams scored the lowest. Wyandot and Crawford counties, both farm-based communities in northern Ohio, also struggled. Hartnett said education levels in those areas are partly to blame. Rural communities tend to see more so-called “brain drain”.

“People with higher education are sorting themselves into suburban communities,” Hartnett said. “That's a trend that's been going on for a long time.”

There were exceptions: Holmes County, which has the largest Amish population in the state, had one of the highest scores, despite being largely rural. Hartnett said it might be what researchers call a “blue zone”: a region with higher than average longevity due to a strong sense of community.

Still, on the whole, Hartnett said the report shows that rural areas could benefit from more state resources.

Ohio lags behind many Midwest states

Nationally, Ohio’s HDI is in the middle of the pack, but, compared to its Midwest peers, it lags behind.

Despite Ohio’s score growing from 0.87 to 0.91 from 1990 to 2020, it hasn’t climbed the ranks. Within the Midwest region, Ohio has been in the bottom 25 percentile for two decades. Minnesota, North Dakota and Nebraska top the list of Midwestern states.

A graph shows Ohio ranks in the bottom middle pack of Midwest states.
Scioto Analysis
Ohio's ranking among Midwest states hasn't changed much in the last two decades.

Ohio does fare better than its immediate neighbors, Indiana and Michigan, but only slightly.

The Midwest states track each other very closely on all three indicators income, education and life expectancy. So there isn't necessarily just one thing we can point to,” he said. “But, looking forward, these indicators show us that the biggest place where we're lagging behind is in health.”

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.