OLEAN — The key to improving Cattaraugus County’s low standing in New York state’s County Health Rankings is to reduce its premature death rate.

In reviewing the 2018 County Health Rankings and Roadmaps with the Board of Health Wednesday, the county’s public health director, Dr. Kevin Watkins, said, “The dial has not moved in Cattaraugus County.” It remains “one of the five unhealthiest counties in New York state. We are dying much sooner prior to age 75 than the rest of New York state.”

The county’s overall health ranking remained stalled at 60th worst out of 62 counties for a second year, Watkins said. The rankings are compiled each year by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Cattaraugus County is ranked 58th worst in the state in premature deaths. That is measured by the number of years residents die before their 75th birthday. Added together, it is 7,300 years, up 400 from 2017.

The average for New York is 5,300 years. Neighboring Allegany County is at number 25, with 5,800 years. Other Western New York counties are also poorly ranked, including Erie County, 57th; Chautauqua County, 58th, and Niagara County, 59th.

Watkins said high rates of smoking (23 percent in Cattaraugus County as compared to 14 percent for the state) and excessive drinking, coupled with a low level of primary care physicians, dentists and mental health professionals, were hard to overcome by a rural county.

The county has about half the number of physicians and dentists as the state average. In Cattaraugus County there is one physician for every 2,025 residents, as compared to one to 1,200 for the state average. For dentists, there are one for every 2,430 residents, as compared to the state average of one to 1,240 residents.

Watkins said it has never been more true that “where you live will determine how long you live.”

Between 2009 and 2013, 1,179 premature deaths (before age 75) were recorded in the county. When added up, there were 7,157 years of potential life lost in this group. That was slightly less than the number of years in Western New York (6,831) but more than the statewide average of 5,352 years.

Among the zip codes within the county with the highest number of premature deaths during the period studied, according to Watkins, are Salamanca, 11,260 years of potential life lost; Hinsdale, 11,965 years; Machias, 8,508; Limestone, 8,105; and Little Valley, 7,841 years.

“Some way we have to get our residents to live longer to move up the list,” Watkins told the board.

In 2015, the last year for which data was compiled, Cattaraugus County’s death rate was 394 per 100,000 population. Cancer was the top cause of death, followed by heart disease, chronic lower respiratory disease, unintended injury and suicide, Watkins said.

In response to the first county health rankings several years ago, the Cattaraugus County Health Department formed the Healthy Living Community Consortium to help improve the county’s health outcomes and ranking. Among the initiatives endorsed by the consortium are the Tobacco 21 initiative, healthy eating, the Veggiemobile, Complete Streets for regular exercise and increased hospital screenings.

The Board of Health’s president, Dr. Joseph Bohan, said obesity remains a serious problem among county residents. “All of these things add up,” he said.

Watkins dedicated the meeting to the memory of Joseph K. Eade of Olean, the former county legislator and longtime member of the Board of Health, who died Friday.

(Contact reporter Rick Miller at rmiller@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @RMillerOTH)