NEWBURYPORT — Starting this weekend, federal health officials will be knocking on doors throughout the area, asking residents to take part in a national health survey that is meant to give a snapshot of the health of Americans.
And for the first time, the survey will also examine a growing area of concern: the eating habits and fitness of children.
The National Center for Health Statistics is in Essex County this week, getting ready to start its survey, which kicks off on Saturday. Officials will be in neighborhoods throughout the greater Newburyport area, knocking on doors and asking residents to answer a simple questionnaire, said Nora Martinello, senior study manager. Postcards are being sent to the homes where the officials will visit.
The initial screening will be used to find volunteers for a more intensive health survey. The agency is looking to find 500 people who meet criteria based on ethnicity, gender and age, she said.
Those who take part in this survey will be asked to fill out a detailed questionnaire that asks questions such as their diet, exercise regimen and family medical history. They will also take part in a medical exam that will be conducted in the agency's mobile medical lab, which will be set up at the Peabody Marriott.
The health exam, which includes a blood sample, takes no more than four hours, said Martinello. Participants are compensated up to $125, plus they are given up to $45 to cover the cost of travel. They also receive the results of their medical tests, an in-depth work-up that includes 120 different blood tests. The comprehensive tests would cost almost $5,000 if administered to a patient through a medical office, said Martinello. All information is kept confidential.
Essex County is one of 15 counties across the nation where the sampling is taking place. The results are used as the basis of an annual health and nutrition survey that has been conducted since 1957 by the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Martinello said the finished survey is not broken down by county; instead, the statistics are presented as the nation's "health check-up." The data is used to develop health policies, direct and design health programs and services, and expand the health knowledge for the nation.
This year, a separate survey will also be conducted, which will focus on youth health and fitness. Some 150 youths, ranging in age from 3 to 15, from Essex County will be asked to take part in the National Youth Fitness Survey, which will closely examine students' eating habits and exercise activities.
The impetus behind the youth survey is what the agency called "epidemic levels of childhood obesity throughout the nation."
According to the CDC, 17 percent of youths are obese. Obesity was measured at about 5 percent in the early 1980s, but it tripled over the next 20 years. In the past decade, the rapid increase in obesity has slowed and might have leveled. However, among the heaviest boys, a significant increase in obesity has been observed, with the heaviest getting even heavier.
In the short term, obesity in children can lead to psychosocial problems and to cardiovascular risk factors such as hypertension, high cholesterol and abnormal glucose tolerance or diabetes, according to the CDC.
The prevalence of obesity among U.S. adults is 34 percent, which translates into nearly 73 million adult men and women. On average, U.S. adults weigh 24 pounds more than they did in 1960, and they are at increased risk for health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.
The CDC reports that although obesity prevalence has remained mostly flat in the past 10 years, the costs associated with obesity have increased substantially during the same period. One study estimated that approximately 9 percent of all medical costs in 2008 were obesity-related and amounted to $147 billion, compared with $78.5 billion 10 years before.