Life in the country can conjure visions of peace and quiet, wide-open spaces and traffic-free driving. But living in rural America can also present challenges, particularly when it comes to the health of its residents, a recent national study found.

The research, presented in the form of a Health Equity Dashboard, was designed to help policy makers visualize the differences in the quality of health in specific locations around our country. A dashboard often uses graphs, charts and other graphics to make the measurements being presented easier to understand.

In order to get a picture of where these locations stand on health equality, the researchers collected publicly available health data from 3,131 U.S. counties comparing rural, suburban and urban areas.

Health measures in general declined across all counties in 2019 as compared to 2015, but the decline was strikingly steeper in rural counties.

The data in this study measured the quality of health during 2019 in: 1) life expectancy; 2) the percentage of the population that is obese; 3) the percentage of the population that's uninsured; 4) income inequality; and 5) air quality.

These factors contribute significantly to the quality of our health. For example, poor air quality can affect our lung development and is implicated in diseases such as emphysema, asthma and other respiratory ailments.

Another example is severe obesity. People with this condition are more likely to have other health issues, such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, sleep apnea and osteoarthritis.

Although it's important to keep in mind that the Dashboard did not investigate the cause and effect of these differences, overall, it showed that the residents of rural counties have worse health outcomes than their urban counterparts. This disparity involves a lot of Americans since 15 to 20 percent of our population lives in a rural area.

Although health measures in general declined across all counties in 2019 as compared to 2015, the decline was strikingly steeper in rural counties. “Our findings highlight the need for policymakers to prioritize rural settings for interventions designed to improve health outcomes,” the authors said in a press release.

“Timely, accurate and high-quality data are a critical component of public health decision making. Data visualization tools can help the effective delivery and translation of data, thereby engaging key stakeholders and prompting action,” they added.

The Dashboard and its findings were presented at the National Rural Health Association's Rural Health Equity Conference in San Diego, California. You can see the study and its results in PLOS Global Public Health.