- Summit County, Colorado is the healthiest place in the US, according to a wealth of public health data.
- The county is middle to upper-middle class and has high rates of physical activity.
- A rare lung condition makes the high-altitude lifestyle slightly more challenging, however.
It’s not just the skiing that keeps residents of Summit County, Colorado spry.
Located about an hour’s drive west from Denver, the mountainous county of roughly 30,000 people is the healthiest place in America, ranking at or near the bottom of numerous causes of death.
According to 2014 data from the Institutes for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Summit County has the nation’s lowest death rates due to cancers overall; breast cancer, prostate cancer, and pancreatic cancer individually; chronic respiratory diseases; and the second-lowest heart disease rate.
It also has the lowest death rate overall and the highest life expectancy, at 86.83 years, beating the national average by eight years.
Annual death rates by US county, with lower rates in blue and higher rates in red. IHME
What’s going on?
A lot of what makes Summit County so healthy is also what makes the other four Colorado counties in the top-10 ranking for life expectancy so healthy: an over-representation of higher-income, young, white residents relative to national averages.
About 81% of the county is white. The median age is 37.1 with a household income of $67,983 and property value of $478,800. The poverty rate was 13.7%.
Now compare those numbers with the demographic data in Union County, Florida, the least healthy county in the US. Union is 67% white, with a median age of 40.3, household income of $39,163, and property value of $87,500. The poverty rate is 20%.
Unlike Union, which has poor access to health services, Summit residents are generally wealthier and better-equipped financially to seek out health care when they need it. They participate less in unhealthy activities, such as smoking. Summit’s smoking rate in 2015 was 14.6%. The national rate is 15.1%. In Union, meanwhile, 20.9% of people smoke.
Living near popular winter resorts in Breckenridge and Frisco, Summit residents also have more opportunities than most to stay active year-round.
Keeping an eye on the heart
Summit may be leading the nation in cancer prevention and avoiding heart disease, but there are some costs to living at such high elevations. At 9,000 to 10,000 feet, Summit residents of all ages are at risk of developing high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). The condition arises when too much fluid enters the lungs, due to a lack of oxygen.
Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos said she saw 44 cases of HAPE in 2015, split across three types. The first are people visiting from low-lying regions. The second are people used to high-altitude coming back after a long visit. And the third are people who are long-term residents, who develop the illness suddenly.
What’s challenging about HAPE, according to Dr. Ebert-Santos, is people are “not really sick,” she told ParkRecord.com. The person’s oxygen levels are too low, but they don’t have asthma or pneumonia, which would hospitalize a person if they coincided with low oxygen levels. This can lead people to misdiagnose the condition as asthma, and panic when typical inhaler treatments don’t work.
“There’s so much that we don’t know, in every walk of life — every facet, not just medicine,” she said. “So we cling to the things we know, like asthma and pneumonia, and it’s like if you have a hammer, everything’s a nail.”
But with the exception of a rare lung condition, Summit residents tend to live long, healthy lives — proving each year the health benefits of financial stability, low poverty, and staying active.