A once-secret community surrounded by mountains, forests and three national parks has been named this year’s healthiest place in the nation.
Los Alamos County, New Mexico, tops the 2020 Healthiest Communities Rankings released by U.S. News & World Report and Aetna Foundation on Tuesday.
The area’s scenic and remote qualities do play a role in its first-place finish, said Joe Williams, senior editor at U.S. News & World Report.
“That is helping it score big in things like fresh air, fresh water. Housing is more affordable in Los Alamos precisely because it isn't in a huge metropolis,” Williams told TODAY.
Made famous by its mission to develop the atomic bomb in the 1940s, the area is still home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It attracts a more educated workforce, and the more education people have, the healthier their outcomes are likely to be, Williams noted. One reason is that white collar jobs tend to come with health insurance attached.
The Healthiest Communities Rankings are based on 84 health and health-related metrics in 10 categories, including population health; food and nutrition; public safety and the environment. Almost 3,000 U.S. communities were evaluated for the annual list.
Los Alamos County tops the rankings for the first time since they were introduced three years ago. The area received a perfect score in 12 metrics, including drinking water quality, affordable housing availability, access to parks and the number of residents who hold an advanced degree. It also ranked among the best for low racial segregation and low preventable hospital admissions.
The healthiest communities in the U.S. in 2020 are:
1. Los Alamos County, New Mexico
2. Douglas County, Colorado
3. Falls Church, Virginia
4. Broomfield County, Colorado
5. Routt County, Colorado
6. Loudoun County, Virginia
7. Pitkin County, Colorado
8. Carver County, Minnesota
9. Summit County, Colorado
10. San Miguel County, Colorado
Communities in Colorado dominate the list, with six in the top 10. Residents there also have access to fresh air and clean water, Williams noted. There’s plenty of opportunity to exercise and explore the area’s scenic outdoors.
Some of the communities are suburbs of Denver, which gives residents more amenities than they might get in the city, Williams said.
“Suburban counties of major cities tend to have better access to fresh food, more parks, higher spending on education per capita, and all of those things help influence ranking,” he noted.
Virginia also has a strong presence, with two communities on the list — both suburbs of Washington, D.C. They scored high in education, health insurance coverage and walkability, while registering low rates of deaths from suicide.
Still, the capital of Hawaii was tops when the results were specifically ranked for mental health.
The top five communities for mental health are:
1. Honolulu County, Hawaii
2. Tripp County, South Dakota
3. Pembina County, North Dakota
4. Sutton County, Texas
5. Hartley County, Texas
Specific COVID-19 data was not included in the 2020 rankings. But perhaps not surprisingly, counties that performed better on the list tended to have a lower COVID-19 case rate. The top 500 healthiest communities had a rate that’s 40% lower than other counties based on coronavirus data through Aug. 24, according to the report.
The top five communities for good health outcomes are:
1. San Juan County, Washington
2. Marin County, California
3. Carver County, Minnesota
4. Cedar County, Nebraska
5. Winneshiek County, Iowa
Many communities that scored high on key metrics in the rankings were in the West, Midwest and South, with the East conspicuously absent. That’s likely because the East is more densely populated than other parts of the country, Williams noted.
“You have a lot of populations in the East that frankly struggle to find things like healthy food and access to health care and access to parks,” he said.
“The West is a lot more sparse. There's a lot more room and a lot more of an emphasis on outdoor recreation, on getting out.”
Some of the crown jewels of the national park system are in the West, including Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, he added.
It may be no surprise Americans living in those areas have the healthiest metrics when it comes to body weight.
Top five communities for low obesity prevalence are:
1. Teton County, Wyoming
2. Eagle County, Colorado
3. Pitkin County, Colorado
4. Summit County, Utah
5. Santa Fe County, New Mexico