Theresa Sanders, president and chief executive of the Urban League...

Theresa Sanders, president and chief executive of the Urban League of Long Island. Credit: Howard Simmons

Nassau and Suffolk continue to rank among the 10 healthiest counties in the state, but Black residents have the lowest life expectancy among all Long Islanders and the highest rate for preventable hospital stays, according to a study released Wednesday.

Nassau ranked as the state's third-healthiest county, behind Putnam and Saratoga, while Suffolk ranked eighth, according to the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps report, which is compiled by the Princeton, N.J.-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a health philanthropy; and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The Bronx remains the state's least healthy county, the data shows.

The study credited low childhood poverty rates, high household incomes and limited numbers of uninsured residents for Nassau and Suffolk's continued place among the state's healthiest counties.

Both Long Island counties benefit from higher median household incomes and greater access to health care than many parts of the state, said Dr. Peter Silver, chief quality officer and senior vice president at Northwell Health.

What to know

  • Nassau and Suffolk continue to rank among the 10 healthiest counties in the state.
  • Black residents have the lowest life expectancy among all Long Islanders.
  • The Bronx remains the state's least healthy county.

"With higher income comes a higher health literacy, and both of those are clearly related to better health outcomes and longer life expectancy," said Silver, who also serves as Northwell's associate chief medical officer.

Lower life expectancy

For Black Long Islanders, life expectancy and other health outcomes lag behind residents of other races and ethnicities, according to the report. Rates of premature deaths and preventable hospital stays are also higher.

The percentage of live births with low birth weight is the highest among Black residents on Long Island, with 13% in Suffolk and 12% in Nassau, according to the report. Life expectancy among Black Long Islanders is also the lowest, at 79 in Nassau and 76.2 in Suffolk.

The average life expectancy overall for residents of Nassau is 81.9 compared to 80.1 in Suffolk and 80.3 statewide. Experts said Suffolk's overall lower number can be attributed, in part, to higher rates of suicide, traffic accidents and fatal drug overdoses compared to Nassau.

Theresa Sanders, chief executive of the Urban League of Long Island, said the data is not surprising considering the socioeconomic disparities on the Island and the challenges facing low-income communities.

"When you go into those communities, take a look at what's missing," Sanders said. "Many … are food deserts that do not have healthy food options in terms of shopping and groceries. Many of those communities are environmentally challenged in terms of what is located within their communities … [and a few of] those communities are not sewered, leading to groundwater issues."

Martine Hackett, an associate professor of health professions at Hofstra University and an expert on health disparities, said income, education, housing and geography can have a major effect on how healthy a resident is likely to be.

"When you look at the population as a whole, or even within a county, you miss the differences across different neighborhoods and places where people live," said Hackett, the co-founder of Birth Justice Warriors, a group dedicated to lowering maternal morbidity and racial health inequities in Nassau County.

"And that does come out when you look at socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity."

Addressing disparities

Suffolk spokeswoman Nicole Russo said the county established the Office of Minority Health in 2005 to help address "health disparities that clearly exist. And we continue to strive to improve outcomes for all Suffolk County residents."

The annual rankings, which are compiled from sources such as the National Center for Health Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, divide between health factors — such as smoking, obesity, exercise, pollution and education levels — and health outcomes, which include rates of premature deaths, low birth weights and the quality of physical and mental health.

Nassau ranked first among the state’s 62 counties in health factors and third in health outcomes, while Suffolk ranked sixth in health factors and eighth in health outcomes, the data shows.

In last year’s report, Nassau ranked first in health factors, as it has since 2013, and fourth in health outcomes, while Suffolk ranked eighth in health factors and 10th in health outcomes. 

In a statement, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman attributed the overall positive health numbers, in part, to having "some of the most sophisticated health care facilities in the world."

The authors of the report found that counties with a strong civic infrastructure, such as high voter turnout, access to broadband and robust funding of local schools, typically have less income inequality, lower rates of childhood poverty and longer life expectancies.

“Our findings reveal that people and places thrive when all residents have the chance to participate in their communities,” said Sheri Johnson, principal investigator of the report and director of the Population Health Institute. “History shows that we can remake systems and structures through civic participation that are beneficial to all.”

Nassau performed better than its neighbor to the east in most categories — levels of air pollution being an exception — with higher median incomes, lower smoking, obesity and poverty levels, and greater access to physicians and mental health providers than residents of Suffolk, the report shows.

For example, in Nassau, the ratio of residents to primary care physicians is 694 to 1 while in Suffolk it's 1,358 to 1, the data shows. Statewide the number is 1,174 to 1, the report found.

Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, said those numbers are concerning.

"Keeping doctors around and making sure people can access them is how we help change behaviors," he said. "It's how we make sure that rates of cancer and heart disease and stroke are maintained in a reasonable fashion and that people are taking care of their health."

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