CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Monongalia County is the healthiest county in West Virginia, and northern counties continue to be better off than their southern counterparts, according to a study released Wednesday.
The report released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin researchers ranks counties by several health factors such as smoking, drinking, obesity, premature deaths, and other areas including education, access to health care and unemployment.
Monongalia overtook Pendleton County, which had been No. 1 the past three years. McDowell County ranked last for the fourth straight year that the report has been released.
Monongalia County had the lowest number of premature deaths, and for at least the fourth straight year had the lowest rates of unhealthy behaviors that include adult smoking and obesity, physical inactivity, excessive drinking, fatal motor vehicle crashes, sexually transmitted diseases, and births among teen mothers.
The county also showed a slight improvement in clinical care and in physical environment, which combines access to recreational facilities and healthy foods, as well as lower rates of fast-food restaurants and air pollution.
This year's study used figures from 2008-2010. Last year's study used figures from 2006-08.
While West Virginia has the second-oldest median age in the nation (41.3) and the second-highest percentage of residents age 65 and older (16 percent), Monongalia County's median age of 29.1 in 2010 was by far the lowest in the state, a reflection of the presence of West Virginia University in Morgantown. Only 10 percent of the county's residents were over 65. By comparison, rural Pendleton County had the highest median age at 47.3.
Not only is Monongalia County the healthiest, it's been the fastest-growing county in the state since 2008 and has the lowest unemployment rate, well below the state average of 8 percent.
"Just living in Morgantown doesn't mean you're going to be healthier," said Dr. Gilbert Ramirez, senior associate dean of academic affairs for the WVU School of Public Health and a member of the county's Board of Health. "But (the statistics) allow us to start trying to understand why it appears that way."