A new report released by the Northern Virginia Health Foundation finds that nearly 60 percent of adult residents and 26 percent of youth in Fairfax County are overweight or obese, and that a quarter of all Fairfax youth aged 14-21 reported feeling hopeless or sad for more than two weeks in a row, an indication of potentially deeper issues.
The report also says that close to one in four Northern Virginia adults has not had a dental visit in the last two years; one in five children hasn’t seen a dental provider in the last year, and that one in five adults — more than 340,000 people — are at risk for binge drinking.
The 50-page study, titled “How Healthy is Northern Virginia?” was released May 30 as part of the first-ever Northern Virginia Health Summit, which brought together community leaders and policymakers to discuss approaches to improving health in the region, including Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington counties.
The study’s findings may seem particularly at odds to some in contrast with Northern Virginia’s well-noted affluence. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income in Fairfax County is about $103,000.
“While income plays some role, this report tells us that this is not only about poor people in poor health,” said NVHF President Patricia N. Mathews, in an introduction to the report. . “These health problems affect all of us, and many of these diseases and conditions are preventable. We should all be paying attention.”
The report finds that despite the region’s wealth, more than 175,000 Northern Virginians live in census tracks that rank in the bottom 20 percent of the Health Opportunity Index statewide. Populations in these census tracks are considered to be more vulnerable for adverse health outcomes. This includes people who live in some of the region’s wealthiest communities, such as Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax counties. The Health Opportunity Index assigns a value to a county or city based on factors that influence health such as affordability, education, environment, and economic opportunities. According to Forbes Magazine’s 2013 ranking of the country’s wealthiest counties, Loudoun topped the list with a median household income of $119,525 while Fairfax ranked fourth overall with a $105,409 average.
Three Northern Virginia counties — Fairfax, Loudoun, and Arlington — are the healthiest in the state in terms of death and disease rates, but that doesn’t mean everyone is healthy.
The study found that 59 percent of all Fairfax County adults — and 26 percent of youth aged 14 to 22 — are classified as overweight or obese based on Body Mass Index (BMI), a standardized weight-to-height ratio used by medical professionals.
The NVHF study does not speculate as to specific obesity causes or factors, but according to the American Heart Association, adults today consume an average of 300 more calories per day than they did in 1985 and eat out much more than they used to, and portion sizes at restaurants have grown dramatically over the last 40 years. Larger portion sizes can mean many are getting more food than their bodies can handle to maintain a healthy weight.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, research shows many people unintentionally consume more calories when faced with larger portions rather than stopping when satisfied. This can mean significant excess calorie intake, especially when eating high-calorie foods to begin with. “This study is a call to action for the region,” said Mathews in the report’s introduction. .
Mental health should also be a concern for the region. The NVHF study finds that 25 percent of all Fairfax County youth aged 14-21 reported feeling hopeless or sad for more than two weeks in a row is not surprising to some area mental health specialists, some of whom feel the true number may actually be even higher.
According to the 2011-12 Fairfax County Youth Survey jointly published by Fairfax County and Fairfax County Public Schools, more than one-third of female FCPS students — 35 percent — reported feeling so sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in a row that they stopped doing usual activities, compared to approximately one-fourth, or 23 percent, of male students.
“Those numbers very much reflect our reality,” said Julia Stephens, executive director of regional crisis hotline CrisisLink, a service of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board. “We receive thousands of calls a year, and many are teens calling us because they are concerned about their friends. I am not surprised at all by those figures.”
According to Lauren Anderson, director and founder of the Josh Anderson Foundation to prevent teen suicide in Vienna, a teen experiencing profound hopelessness or sadness for more than two weeks in a row can potentially be a sign of much deeper issues.
“That question is asked that way to distinguish between normal sadness and a longer-term condition,” she said. “Two weeks generally indicates that there is something greater going on beyond a situational event.”
In its latest $2.4 billion budget, the Fairfax County School Board was divided on how to best approach concerns about youth mental health within the school system, ultimately voting to hire enough staff so that no psychologist or social worker is assigned to more than two schools.
“This is not a luxury,” said Patty Reed (Providence), one of the board members who introduced the amendment to fund psychologists and social workers. “We need to focus on the whole child.”
Stephens of CrisisLink says that despite the perhaps shocking revelation to some that mental illness issues may exist among the youth population in affluent Fairfax County, it should really not be surprising.
“It makes no difference whether you have money or resources or family support. Mental illness is often genetic and money has nothing to do with it,” she said.
Belinda Buescher, communications director of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, agreed and said that despite its social stigma, mental illness is just another disease, and any disease potentially affecting 25 percent of Fairfax County youth should be of great concern.
“It has been an explicit issue with our board,” she said. “We see families with elementary aged youth exhibiting signs of mental illness. Although the 25 percent figure does not surprise me, whenever you have that many youth venting at that level of despair, it requires action,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where it is occurring.”