The NYC Health and Nutrition Examination Survey is a little bit of a municipal marvel.
You try getting a couple thousand randomly selected NYC households to answer survey questions about health and personal preferences and take a physical exam. Phlebotomists and field interviewers went door to door doing one-to-two-hour interviews, taking measurements, and collecting blood and urine. “Who wants to know” is the least of what researchers might be greeted with.
This sort of Roman-legion-scale scientific-and-information-gathering effort is more manageable for the federal government, which has conducted similar studies for decades. But NYC organized its own in 2004, which resulted in dozens of scientific articles and helped prod changes to local laws. The city repeated the survey between 2013 and 2014.
This week, the Health Department and NYU School of Medicine researchers published a series of papers from those surveys, and there’s plenty to mine.
Some of the studies, such as one on sleep, drill down into the 2013-2014 data. That study found that almost 42 percent of New Yorkers report sleep problems, including issues falling or staying asleep. (This is close to national figures from the same period, according to one of the sleep study authors, Dustin Duncan, also of the NYU School of Medicine. Duncan says he was “surprised” that the city matched the country. City that never sleeps, etc.)
Thanks to the two big health surveys 10 years apart, other studies do trend comparisons: One finds that consumption of fruits and vegetables has decreased, while eating out and spending time in front of a screen — TV and computers — increased. That coincided with a rise in obesity in NYC from 27.5 to 32.4 percent over 10 years, though the increase was smaller than the one nationally. Study author Pasquale Rummo of NYU School of Medicine says one reason could be city-level obesity initiatives under Mayors Bill de Blasio and Michael Bloomberg. Unlike the sleep data, an example of NYC exceptionalism.
But one thing the studies as a whole show is that disparate health outcomes are normal in New York.
The uninsured and immigrants saw the greatest obesity increases. The hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers with depression include a disproportionate number of women, Latinos, those living in high-poverty neighborhoods, and the unemployed. Bisexual adult New Yorkers had higher rates of sleep problems than heterosexual or homosexual adult New Yorkers.
That study on sleep rates did not look at determinants, said Duncan, but he pointed to various possible individual and neighborhood factors: Financial hardship. Life in a neighborhood with more crime. And for bisexual New Yorkers in particular, perhaps the possibility of not fitting in as comfortably in either heterosexual or gay communities, resulting in stress, which affects so many parts of our daily lives.
So the studies are a sober look at the way we live. Our gadgets and life-hacks have not always brought good health or happiness. Our extremities of income and circumstance often do too much to dictate our outcomes. We have the data and have often tried to use it for good, and hopefully will again.
Maybe we’ll be better next time health researchers go door to door.