New Yorkers Get Their 10-Year Physical

December 11, 2013 | Salute to Scholars, The University

SOME NEW YORKERS are being asked for information about their medical history to help researchers get a better understanding of urban health. Nearly 3,000 New Yorkers have been randomly selected to participate in the New York City Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NYC HANES.

Kathryn Forsythe collecting data on the health of New Yorkers.

Kathryn Forsythe collecting data on the health of New Yorkers.

CUNY School of Public Health and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene are conducting the large representative study on the health of city residents. Participants are asked to take a brief physical exam and a computer-based survey, and researchers will analyze the blood, urine and saliva samples to test for conditions like exposure to secondhand smoke. Funding for the NYC HANES study was provided by the deBeaumont Foundation, with additional support from Robert Wood Johnson, Robin Hood and New York State Health Foundations.

A study as in-depth as NYC HANES reveals many things that one could not get from a standard health survey, says Lorna Thorpe, who is the lead investigator of the study and a professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health. “It actually tells [researchers] what the burdens of chronic conditions are and how much New Yorkers have been exposed to certain environmental hazards,” adds Thorpe.

Of the 3,000 people selected for the survey, researchers are aiming for a minimum of 2,000 participants. “We’ll be working hard to get a high enough response rate for the results to be meaningful. It’s very difficult to find New Yorkers at home and when we do reach them they are skeptical and wary and we need to persuade them to participate in the study,” says Thorpe. But participants will not have to divulge information that makes them uncomfortable and the survey does not include questions about immigration status. There is also a $100 cash incentive for people who participate in both the survey and the physical exam.

This is the second time the city has conducted the NYC HANES, and results from the 2004 study revealed that one in four adult New Yorkers had high blood pressure and high cholesterol with an elevated risk of heart disease and stroke. In response, the city banned the use of artificial trans fat by restaurants. “We have a number of municipal policies we are trying to evaluate to see if they have improved health and we’ll use the new data to inform new policies,” says Thorpe.

Lab results from the first survey also indicated that nearly one in three New Yorkers with diabetes didn’t realize they had the disease. And, it found that mercury levels in New Yorkers were three times higher than the national average. This led to the removal of dangerous products in stores and an increased effort to educate the public about hazardous levels of mercury found in some fish.

“There was one survey participant who had extremely high levels of mercury in her urine. Turns out she was using a skin-lightening cream purchased from the local bodega. We actually passed a commissioner’s order banning the sale of that product in the city,” says Thorpe.

Thorpe hypothesizes that we will see some improvements in the city’s health but we won’t know until the results are available, which may not be until the fall of 2014. “There have been aggressive efforts to make New York City a healthy environment. At the same time some of these efforts may have been offset by a worsening economy. So it’s hard know how what we’ll see.”