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A look at obesity in the different parts of Georgia

August 1, 2012

Today, we’ll take a look at some fresh work we’re doing on obesity in Georgia.  Obesity itself isn’t necessarily a medical condition, but it often contributes to diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and some types of cancer – all of which obviously are serious medical conditions and very expensive to treat.

It’s not news, of course, that Georgia has an obesity problem.  According to United Health Foundation’s 2011 edition of America’s Health Rankings, 30.4 percent of adult Georgians are obese and we rank 38th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.  Another non-profit that tracks health status, the Trust for America’s Health, says we’re doing a little better.  In the 2011 edition of its “F as in Fat” report, TAH puts the adult obesity rate in Georgia at 28.1 percent.  It also uses a worst-to-best ranking system that puts us in 17th place nationally; on the best-to-worst scale used by America’s Health Rankings, we’d be 34th.

Still a third set of data arises from the University of Wisconsin’s County Health Rankings project, which aggregates and publishes health-related data on nearly every county in the country.  UW’s latest report puts Georgia’s adult obesity rate at 28.37 percent.

So, any way you slice it, it’s not a pretty picture for Georgia.  But it’s also not a uniform picture.

One of the things we’ve been studying is obesity trends in different parts of the state.  Working with the county-level numbers aggregated by the University of Wisconsin (which pulls its data from publicly available sources in Georgia), we’ve cut the state into the usual regions – North Georgia, Middle Georgia, South Georgia, the 10-county Atlanta Regional Commission counties, and a handful of exurban counties – and also looked at the urban versus rural profiles.

According to the Wisconsin study, a total of 68,810 Georgia adults slipped over the line from merely overweight to obese between 2010 and 2012.  Of those, 17,163 were in the 10 core Metro Atlanta counties – Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale.  Combined, those counties are home to just over 4.1 million people, or 42.4 percent of the state’s population.

The remaining 51,647 Georgia adults who tipped over into obese territory reside in the other 149 counties, where the total population is about 5.58 million, or 57.6 percent of the state’s population.

In other words, the 10-county ARC region, with 42.4 percent of the state’s population, produced just under 25 percent of the state’s new obese adults over the past two years.  The other 75 percent emerged from the 149 counties which are home to 57.6 percent of the population.

The ARC region already had a much lower obesity rate than the rest of the state, and the gap widened over the past two years.  The Atlanta obesity rate for 2012 is just over 26 percent, not great but on a par with states like Washington, Rhode Island and Virginia, among others; if the ARC region were a state unto itself, it would probably rank about 20th nationally.

Needless to say, the picture for the rest of Georgia isn’t so rosy.  For the other 149 counties combined, the adult obesity rate comes in at about 30.2 percent.  If all the non-ARC counties comprised a standalone state, it would probably rank about 43rd or 44th, with numbers close to our geographic neighbors.

Now what happens if we saw the state in half at the gnat line?  For the purposes of our analysis, we’ve lumped together 105 counties from middle Georgia south to the Florida line.  This territory is overwhelmingly rural but includes the cities of Columbus, Macon and Augusta along the fall line, as well Savannah, Albany, Valdosta, Tifton, Waycross and Milledgeville.

This new State of South Georgia has a combined population of 3.36 million people, more than 1 million of whom are obese; the adult obesity rate for these 105 counties is 31.4 percent.  Look only at the truly rural counties in this territory and the picture is only marginally worse: 31.7 percent obese.

Our purpose with this kind of analysis is in no way to criticize or demonize South Georgia or any other part of the state.  It is, rather, simply to put a spotlight on important differences in population health from one part of the state to another, and to generate some discussion about the host of public policies that will be required to address those issues.

In future posts, we’ll look at differences by region in health care costs and premature death rates, among other issues – and we’ll look at how the state’s changing political landscape is making it more difficult to address these challenges.


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