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Report: Michigan is older and sicker, and that spells trouble for future

Noah Yun, 6 months old, receives a COVID vaccine from public health nurse Christina Trevino at the Washtenaw County Health Department. (Bridge photo by Brayan Gutierrez)
  • The average Michigan resident is sicker and dies about a year earlier than the average U.S. resident, a new report shows
  • The state now ranks 39th in health measures  
  • The paper compiles data to draw a bleak picture of Michigan’s current well-being and map out a path to better health

Michigan’s population is less healthy than the national average and losing ground, now ranking 39th in U.S. health measures, according to a grim new report.

Long struggling with high disease rates and health disparities, the state now fares poorly compared with most other states on multiple measures, including life expectancy, premature death and disease prevalence, according to the report, released Thursday, by the Lansing-based Citizens Research Council, which focuses on Michigan public policy, and Altarum, a Michigan-based nonprofit focusing on health.

Population trends can hint at Michigan’s future economic prosperity, but a more nuanced look at its residents’ health offers a clearer picture, said Corey Rhyan of Altarum, a health research nonprofit. (Courtesy photo)

In the 25-page report, the authors raked together dozens of health data points about the state’s health and well-being, building on previous concerns that Michigan is older, unhealthier and wracked by health disparities that dramatically sharpen the risk for the state’s poor communities, rural residents and residents of color.

Drawing from research in the annual America’s Health Rankings report, for example, the Michigan-focused paper ranked Michigan 39th of 50 states in overall health, tumbling from 32nd of 50 states in 2008.

All that spells trouble for Michigan’s economy, future workforce and for the health care challenges facing the state’s older residents, including their ability to remain in their homes as they age.

The state’s faltering health is as troubling as its lagging population, said Corey Rhyan, research director with the Health Economics Policy Team at Altarum.

“It's also about how healthy (residents) are and how well they can contribute to the workforce as employees and how well (their) children (do) in the education system,” Rhyan said. “Health is such a critical factor in not only the people that we have, but the capacity and the capability of the state as a whole.”

A state’s ability to boost the health of its residents is a core quality-of-life concern that can attract people to Michigan — or drive them away, said Eric Lupher, president of the Lansing-based Citizens Research Council. (Courtesy photo)

Eric Lupher, president of the Lansing-based Citizens Research Council, said the numbers speak to the state’s “quality of life, about keeping people here and attracting people here.” 

The report was funded, in part, by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, Hudson-Webber Foundation, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, Michigan Health Endowment Fund, The Joyce Foundation, The Skillman Foundation, and the Ballmer Group. 

(Disclosure: The Mott, Kresge, Wilson, Hudson-Webber, Kellogg, Joyce, Skillman and Grand Rapids Community foundations and the Michigan Health Endowment Fund are financial supporters of the Center for Michigan, Bridge Michigan’s nonprofit parent. Funders play no role in Bridge’s journalism.) 

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Among the key findings of the report, which also relied on data from, among others, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and analysis by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and others:

  • Michigan ranks below most states and most Midwestern neighbors in life expectancy, self-reported health status and numbers of days impacted by poor physical or poor mental health. 

Michigan’s average life expectancy rose from 76.4 years in 2000 to 78.1 years in 2019. But that more recent life expectancy lagged behind the U.S. and neighboring states’ average of 78.8 in 2019. After sifting in data as well from 2020, the average life expectancy was 76 in Michigan versus 77 across the U.S. 

  • Within Michigan are persistent health disparities by race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and geography. For example, Black babies die at 2.7 times the rate of white babies, driving the state infant mortality rate to 6.6 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2019. That compared to the national average of 5.8 deaths per 1,000 lives births the same year, and ranked Michigan’s overall infant mortality rate as the 7th worst in the nation.

In  another measure of health disparities, life expectancy by Michigan neighborhood varies by as much as 29 years — ranging from nearly 91 years in an East Grand Rapids neighborhood to 62 years in a Detroit area neighborhood, according to information the authors drew from a 2018 Detroit News analysis of data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

  • On the positive side, Michigan has low rates of uninsured residents, driven largely by its employer-sponsored health care plans, the expansion to Medicaid to cover residents up to 133 percent of the federal poverty limit, and lower-than-average health care costs. 

(The report doesn't specifically cite Michigan's embrace of the federal insurance marketplace, a core provision of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. More than 322,000 Michiganders enrolled in 2023 plans, according to the Michigan Department of Insurance and Financial Services.)

  • The state has a higher-than-average number of physicians per capita, but a maldistribution of those providers restricts care in places such as northern Michigan or the Upper Peninsula.

For instance, citing 2023 County Health Rankings Data, there were fewer than 10 primary care physicians per 100,000 people in Presque Isle County and Lake County, while highly populated Washtenaw County there were 176 primary care doctors per 100,000 in 2020, Rhyan said.

  • Michigan’s public health system is less well funded compared to other states and has suffered a loss in experienced workforce coming out of the pandemic. 
  • Michigan faces a double-challenge in its demographics: growth in its older population against projected declines in younger residents. Those forces will “challenge the availability of resources, workforce, and family caregivers,” according to the report.

Bridge Michigan is focusing on the state’s population, health care and workforce shortages throughout 2023. In May, Bridge co-hosted a forum on the state’s challenges with CRC and Altarum. This week’s report is part of a five-part series by the two groups that examine the state’s population and demographics, economy, workforce, talent, health, infrastructure, environment, climate, and state and local government.

The series, said Lupher, will make clear how each is “interconnected” and critical to Michigan’s future well-being.

As Bridge previously reported, Michigan is the 10th-biggest state in the nation, with just over 10 million people. But its growth rate has slowed considerably, with the state ranking 49th in population growth since 1990, ahead of only West Virginia. 

In its first report in May, CRC and Altarum warned Michigan has “fallen behind other states in population growth, jobs, earnings, health, educational achievement, and the quality of public services at the state and local levels.” 

Bolstering the state’s public health system, which has been underfunded for years, and placing more doctors and other health care providers in underserved areas is critical. And health systems can focus more on services that address social determinants of health, said Rhyan of Altarum. The report also calls for more planning on how to better care for Michigan’s aging population and a focus on mental health.

Such efforts will help to curb health issues before they happen, he said.

“We can have a great system that can treat people that have a wide variety of chronic diseases and injuries,” he said. But “what we want to do is we want to prevent those things in the first place.” 

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