County Health Assessment Released

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

October 6, 2023

How healthy are San Luis Obispo County’s residents? What health-related issues do they face that help the local numbers beat the State averages for certain ailments and where does the County need to try harder to improve?

These are some of the questions addressed in the “2023 San Luis Obispo County Community Health Assessment,” a comprehensive report on the overall health of the residents recently released by the SLO County Health Agency.

“This assessment,” County Health Officer Dr. Penny Borenstein said, “gave us the chance to look not only at the hard data from within our department, but to also listen to the challenges and opportunities that residents are experiencing on a daily basis when it comes to health in our community.”

“Accurate, relevant information,” reads an excerpt from the Health Assessment, “helps us determine how to most effectively direct limited resources and where to find assets we can leverage to make positive change. 

“It helps us understand who is most vulnerable to health threats and what demands most need our attention. Data also allows us to see what is working well in communities and find additional ways to improve community health.”

The study was conducted by SLO Health Counts, a collaborative that conducts a community health assessment in SLO County every five years.

The study made use of three main kinds of data — a community health survey and interviews with stakeholders (these are primary data sets) and secondary sources like the California Healthy Kids Survey, and the California Department of Public Health.

Study Over a Life Course

The Health Assessment looks at the health of the community over a “life course.”  

“A life course approach,” the study said, “considers one’s experiences throughout the lifespan, within the context of their history, environment, family, community, society, and culture. It takes into account factors such as housing, income, access to healthy food, and other neighborhood characteristics that play a critical role in a person’s opportunity to be healthy.”

But as the song goes, “Sometimes life gets in the way.”

“Certain events and exposures [e.g. trauma[,” reads the study, “can also have long-term impacts on development and health, so these are also included when assessing our community’s health.”

Good News

Among the good things in the report, are findings that indicate some chronic diseases are waning here compared to state averages, but others are still prevalent.

Among the improving issues are rates of heart disease, diabetes, teen births, and deaths from COVID-19, all show the County is doing comparatively well.

What Needs Improvement

The County report lists several areas where the study determined there was room for improvement, including: improving access to health care; mental health; lack of affordable housing; drug overdoses; death from strokes; and a rise in obesity rates.

Leading Causes of Death

The study lists several of the leading causes of death to SLO County residents and as one might expect with an older population, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s are near the top of the list.

The study looks at the death rates from various diseases over the past three years (2020-2022) and key findings include: heart disease went from 465 in 2020 to 449 in 2021 and 509 in 2022, according to the study — figures are the number of cases out of every 100,000 residents (SLO County had 282,424 residents as per the 2020 U.S. Census).

Cancer (not specified which type) went from 528 in 2020 to 546 in 2021 and dropped to 449 in 2022; and strokes went from 261, to 260 and 273 in 2022.

Alzheimer’s Disease claimed 179 in 2020, 163 in 2021 and 155 in 2022; with COVID-19 claiming 115 in 2020, 244 in 2021 and 122 in 2022, according to the study.

Also of note, drug overdoses — due mainly to fentanyl — listed 82 in 2020, 114 in 2021 and 67 in 2022. Suicides or deaths by “self-harm” were 41 in 2020, 54 in 2021 and 49 in 2022.

And despite the proliferation of businesses that either produce and/or serve alcohol throughout SLO County — from the wine industry to microbreweries and whiskey distillers the number hardly changed from year to year. The study showed 67 alcohol related deaths in 2020; 65 in 2021; and 68 for 2022.

Deaths by Misadventure

Deaths caused by some kind of misadventure — from car accidents to ODs and accidents in the home — were also studied by the County and while some categories showed what looks like a big leap on a graph, isn’t very many in terms of actual numbers. For example, “accidents” as a category went from 35 to 54 over the course of the past 14 years (reported in 3-year increments), according to the Health Assessment.

Drug overdoses showed that same kind of sweeping upward arc on a graph, but in actual numbers isn’t very significant. Drug overdoses went from less than 16 in the years 2011-2013, to 18 in 2017-2019 and 34 from 2019-2021, according to the study.

The homicide rate was almost flat starting in 2011-13 with about 2.5 per 100,000 residents, bumping up to 3 from 2014-2016 and staying flat at 2 per 100,000 for the next 15 years.

As for cancer, the study looked at four main types — breast, lung, prostate and colorectal cancers with lung cancer claiming the most lives. 

The charts show lung cancer deaths going from 33 in 2011-2013 with a steady drop to 23 in 2019-2021. 

Breast cancer went from 22 to 19 over the 14 years indicated, and prostate cancer from 21 in 2011-2013 to 20 in 2019-2021, with a couple of slight peaks and dips in between.

And Colorectal cancers went from 14 to 10 over the same 14 years time.

SLO vs. California

So how do we compare to the State of California overall? It’s a mixed bag according to the study.

Overall, SLO County’s death rate was 606 (per 100,000) for all causes while the State average was 657, but deaths from cancers here was 127 vs. 125 statewide.

SLO County also topped the state average in deaths by strokes with 57 vs. 37, according to the study.

Heart disease claims fewer SLO County resident, with 62 while the State averages 79 but we’re doing poorly in terms of drug overdoses with 34 here vs. 21 statewide.

Drug Deaths High

One shocking statistic stands out here, the number of drug overdose deaths for several younger age groups. Another chart measuring causes of death separated by ages shows the leading cause of death amongst those 15-24, 25-34, 35-44 and 45-54 was drug overdoses (26, 72, 56 and 66 respectively). 

Road injury deaths were the second leading cause of death for 15-24, and suicide was third at 15.

Suicide rose to second place among those 25-34 with 38; road injuries was third at 21; and alcohol came in fourth at 18.

Alcohol-related deaths were the second most frequent amongst those 25-34 (32) and 45-54 (51). Suicide was third for those 35-44 with 22 and road injuries fourth (13). 

In the older residents, heart disease rises to the top of all three age groups — 55-64 (143), 65-74 (219) and 75-84 (304) — and alcohol still plays a significant role in killing those 55-64 as the second leading cause of death. 

Drug ODs too are big with the 55 to 64-year olds, as the number of ODs stood at 70 for that age group.

Study’s Usefulness

What does the County plan to do with all this information? Hopefully, it will help them direct policies, resources and most importantly, money, to what’s apparently the most pressing health issues SLO County residents face.

“The most powerful use of health data,” Dr. Borenstein said, “is to inform action, and that is what this assessment will do.”

She’s grateful to everyone who pitched in. “To all the community members who participated in the survey and interviews earlier this year: Thank you.”

If readers would like to check out the Health Assessment, which has more information than we’ve covered here, see the website at:

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