Kansans are getting healthier.
We smoke less and drive more safely. We're getting our children immunized, plus our workplaces are safer than they were at the beginning of the last decade.
But the picture isn't all rosy.
Of every 1,000 babies born in the state, more than seven will die young - more than last year, but still below the national average. Plus, Kansas residents became incrementally more obese, part of an ongoing national trend of expanding waistlines.
"As we're finding out, these are difficult issues," said Joe Blubaugh, spokesman for Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
The issues, both good and bad, were outlined Tuesday in the United Health Foundation's annual state and national rankings. The findings examined factors that contribute to the health and well-being of a population, including crime rates, the prevalence of health insurance and the living conditions of our nation's children.
This year, Kansas was one of the four most improved states in the country when it came to the health of its residents, with only Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin improving more.
Kansas' rank jumped from 23rd in 2005 to 17th this year, mainly on the strength of its low uninsured population, low prevalence of infectious disease and steadily declining number of smokers, according to the report.
Nationwide, the health of Americans improved only 0.3 percent, according to the rankings.
"We've worked hard this year to encourage Kansans to make healthier lifestyle choices and it's great we're making progress," Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement.
Decline in smoking
While smoking rates per capita declined nationwide and have done so for years, the decline in Kansas was significant, dropping from nearly 20 percent last year to 17.8 percent in 2006. That percentage was the sixth best rate in the country.
Even more significant was the decline since 1990, when more than 30 percent of Kansans smoked, according to the report's data.
"We're happy to hear that. We've been dedicated for many years to improving those rates," said Kim Rice, community manager of health initiatives for the American Cancer Society in Kansas.
Rice said that she's seen more and more communities in Kansas that want smoke-free workplaces. She's worked in Douglas County, as well as Lyon and Coffey counties, to push anti-smoking initiatives, and has received mostly positive feedback.
Lawrence banned indoor public smoking in 2004, and several other communities on the Kansas side of the Kansas City metro have been mulling or have recently approved a ban on smoking.
Boost in immunization
Two other programs helped Kansas improve in another area ranked by the study, state officials say - childhood immunization.
The KDHE Immunization Program and the Immunize Kansas Kids Project both helped boost immunization rates among children this year, officials say. The KDHE program recently won the Mid-America Immunization Coalition award, and the Immunize Kansas Kids Project, sponsored by KDHE, the Kansas Health Institute and others, has been selected for another health award.
Just last year, only 77 percent of Kansas children ages 19 months to 36 months were immunized, according to the report - ranking 43rd among the 50 states.
"It dropped us tremendously," Blubaugh said of the 2005 rankings.
But Blubaugh said the new programs boosted awareness around the state. This year's rankings jumped to almost 84 percent, good for 13th nationally.
Workplace and motor vehicle deaths also fell, according to the report.
But the report cited problems in the state's overall health as well. Most important, Blubaugh said, was the increase in the infant mortality rate - something that reflects "the overall health of a society."
The state's ranking for the number of infant deaths per 1,000 fell one place from last year, from 28th to 29th. But since 1990, when Kansas ranked 14th, the state's rank has fallen considerably.
"It's not acceptable," Blubaugh said.
He equated the high number of infant deaths to social problems in Kansas, including difficult access to heath care and social services for minorities.
The report reflects this in some ways. For example, black and Hispanic women receive prenatal care within the first trimester far less often than their white counterparts, the report showed.
The report also showed a jump in the poverty level among children in Kansas - 17.8 percent this year compared with 15.6 percent last year and 14.3 percent in 1990.
This year, Kansas ranked 31st among the states in child poverty levels.
But Abby Hodgson, a spokeswoman for Kansas Social and Rehabilitation Services, said she didn't think there was any evidence linking poverty and infant mortality rates.
SRS provides impoverished children with as much assistance as it can, she said, including food stamps and other programs to ensure they are healthy.
"I don't know that we can address poverty directly, but we can provide services to children," Hodgson said.
Blubaugh agreed that tackling such class-based problems was difficult, as seen by the prevalence of child poverty and infant deaths nationally.
"How do you provide money to programs to do that? How do we address those goals?" he asked.
Obesity poses much of the same problems - how to break deep-seated habits and change lifestyles.
While the state's obesity rank fell three spots to 22nd nationally, the report showed the prevalence of obesity actually climbed almost a full percentage point, to 23.9 percent in 2006.
Overall, however, the health of Kansans did improve this year, something Blubaugh said he hopes local and statewide programs can keep improving on.
But in general, the report shows that Kansas is not keeping up with other states' improvements to their health care systems. Even though problematic rates have improved in Kansas - the number of cancer-related deaths and premature deaths, for example - their rankings have slipped.
For example, in 1990, about 367 Kansans died from cardiovascular problems per 100,000 people. That ranked 12th best nationally, the report showed.
This year, only 315 Kansans per 100,000 died from cardiovascular health, but that number now ranks 23rd among all states.
Blubaugh said there are policies in place to try to address these problems - many of which stem from health issues like smoking and obesity.
The federal Department of Health and Human Services has issued new health goals for communities nationwide - called Healthy People 2010 - that will help all states get on par and address similar issues, he said.
But funding and other obstacles often stand in the way, Blubaugh said.
"The hard part is finding ways to implement those policies," he said.