Binge drinking, depression among health issues in Northern Virginia, study finds

May 31, 2013

As one of the most affluent areas in the country, Northern Virginia can also boast that its 2.3 million residents are, by many accounts, in good health.

But a report to be released Friday reveals a host of underlying health issues, including binge drinking among adults, delayed dental care, and a risk of depression in one out of four youths in the region.

The report, “How Healthy is Northern Virginia,” was commissioned by the Northern Virginia Health Foundation, a nonprofit group that focuses on the health of residents in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties and the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park.

Although some of the findings relate to disparities in income, others do not and reflect the fact that residents of all income levels and racial and ethnic backgrounds face conditions challenging to their health, said Patricia Mathews, president of the foundation.

“In some of those affluent areas, people aren’t doing well at all. . . . If slightly more than 1 million people are estimated to be overweight or obese — out of a total Northern Virginia population of 2.3 million — then it is clear that we are talking about everyone,” she said.

What’s more, many of the health conditions described in the report are preventable, she said, citing binge drinking, obesity and delayed oral health care.

The report shows surprising contrasts. Three counties — Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington — are the healthiest in the state in terms of disease and death rates. But across the region, more than 340,000 adults are at risk for binge drinking, which is 30 percent of the state’s at-risk binge-drinkers (five or more drinks on one occasion for men, four or more drinks for women). More than 400,000 adults have not had a dental visit in the last two years, about 29 percent of the state total for this group, the report found.

On depression in youth, the report found that more than 42,000 teens ages 14 to 19 said they felt sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in a row. That represents 26.5 percent of the state’s population of youth at risk for depression and is slightly below the national average of 28.5 percent.

“Regardless of the national average, that’s a lot of kids,” Mathews said. It could be a sign of bullying or troubles at home or poor performance in school, she said.

Of the 13,500 women in the state who failed to receive early prenatal care in 2011, more than a third — 5,189 — lived in Northern Virginia, the report found.

The reasons are unclear. Although Northern Virginia is larger in size and population than neighboring Montgomery County, Northern Virginia has eight safety-net clinics that are open at least four days a week, compared with 12 in Montgomery County, health experts said.

Physical environments and zoning issues also play a role. Communities without sidewalks often mean children don’t play in the streets because it’s not safe, leading to less exercise, she said.

Finding solutions requires a hard look outside the medical sector, Mathews said. The foundation is hosting a health summit Friday to brainstorm with other local community groups, health departments, oral health safety-net programs, area colleges and universities, and private insurers.

The group commissioned the report to share efforts begun by other localities to tackle health issues in their jurisdictions.

Alexandria, for example, is attempting to figure out a way to sell healthier offerings in vending machines in all of its public buildings. That process has required quite a bit of effort, Mathews said, and other jurisdictions would not have to reinvent the wheel.

The data were culled from multiple local, state and national sources, as well as from an annual ranking of county health put out by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Lena H. Sun is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on health.
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