MILTON — Santa Rosa ranks No. 15 out of 67 Florida counties for length of life, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute’s latest County Health Rankings.

The current average life expectancy in the United States is 78.8 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the average for Florida is 75.5 years. The rate of premature death, or death before age 75, has been gradually declining in the country, the state and in Santa Rosa County.

Currently, the state with the lowest premature death rate is Minnesota with 5,414 residents per 100,000 population; the highest is Mississippi with 10,744 residents. The rate of premature death is currently down to 6,535 residents in Santa Rosa County. The rate was highest in 1999 at 7,805 residents.

According to the health rankings, the top five leading causes of premature death in Santa Rosa County are as follows: malignant neoplasms (cancerous tumors), heart disease, accidental death, chronic lower respiratory diseases and suicide.

Although the overall premature death rate has declined, the rate has actually increased for white Americans. According to a comprehensive study of the entire U.S. population from 1999-2014 by the National Cancer Institute, premature death rates have declined in the U.S. among Hispanic and black people. and Asian/Pacific Islanders, but increased among white people and American Indian/Alaska Natives.

Declining rates of premature death among certain groups were due mainly to fewer deaths from cancer, heart disease, and HIV over the period of the study, according to NCI; the decline reflects successes in public health efforts to reduce tobacco use and medical advances to improve diagnosis and treatment.

White people also experienced fewer premature deaths from cancer and fewer deaths from heart disease over the study period. Despite the improvements, overall premature death rates for white people and American Indian/Alaska Natives were driven up by large increases in deaths from accidents (primarily drug overdoses), as well as suicide and liver disease, according to NCI.

“We work closely with our community partners on issues such as tobacco use, healthy weight, healthy babies, access to care and safety and these are areas that affect conditions like heart disease, respiratory disease, cancer and infant mortality,” Deborah Stilphen, operations analyst at the Florida Department of Heath-Santa Rosa, said. 

“Over time, we would expect to see an improvement in the health of the community in general, but at this point, we don’t have the data we need to document that these efforts are the direct cause of the decline in the rate of premature deaths.”