by Mandy Moran Froemming
It used to be that numbers like cholesterol levels and blood pressure weren’t a concern until people closed in on middle age.
But these days testing is being done earlier and earlier, now even in local high schools.
Under the auspice of the wellness programs at Mercy and Unity Hospitals, since 1995 high school students have been screened for potential high cholesterol, high blood pressure and unhealthy body mass index – all precursors to future health problems like heart disease and stroke.
According to Brenda Link, manager for the wellness programs at Mercy and Unity hospitals, by getting screened early, teens have time to either change unhealthy behavior or be aware of how genetic factors can affect them down the road.
“We talk to them about what those numbers mean and how lifestyle choices can make a difference,” said Link.
If test results are really elevated, a letter goes home to parents with recommendations of next steps – which can start a discussion with the family doctor and could initiate further testing or a recommendation for treatment or to a program.
From a testing at Anoka High School Oct. 25, 27 letters were being sent home, said Link, due to those heightened risk factors.
Since the program started at Coon Rapids High School in 1995, more than 9,000 students have been tested. It has now expanded to include high schools in Anoka, Fridley and Buffalo. Testing is done by a combination of RNs, LPNs and exercise physiologists.
The results are consistent among the schools.
According to Link, based on the data since 1995, 30 percent of the students in Anoka and Coon Rapids are at a higher risk of developing heart disease based on their blood pressure or total cholesterol readings.
Fifty-four percent have tested borderline hypertensive with high blood pressure readings and 17 percent have a total cholesterol count over 170, the recommended number for students in the 15 to 18 age range.
But those numbers are getting worse – the trends are changing.
“What we’ve noticed in the last three years that the numbers are going up,” said Link.
Jeff Buerkle teaches health and physical education at Anoka High School. Since the wellness initiative expanded to include Anoka in 2007, anecdotally he feels the health of the students has been declining.
Last month when the Anoka students were being tested, Buerkle said in an earlier class five or six students had total cholesterol readings above the suggested range, some near or above 200.
According to Link, the statistics confirm that. More students are proving to be high risk, both in the blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
But there is good news.
While the health screenings take place during the students’ regular required health classes, Buerkle said it is in the Healthy Lifestyles class where they can talk about making changes, monitor the results and see the outcome.
The elective for juniors and seniors is a two-trimester course where they are able to focus more specifically on making lifestyle choices.
Buerkle also knows the students well enough to be realistic about the expectations for the teens.
“To ask them to never go to a place like McDonald’s just isn’t realistic,” said Buerkle.
Instead, they talk about choosing a small order of fries instead of a large one, or swapping out the quarter pounder with cheese for a regular cheeseburger.
He can recall one student, a young girl with cholesterol levels well over 200, was able to bring it back into the normal range for a teenager, all through making healthier food choices and adding exercise.
Supporting the program
It costs an average of $16.33 to have each student tested, said Link.
The program is funding both by Allina as well as from donations from the 5M7 Lions and Lioness clubs. The service organization also funds the wellness van, used for health screenings at community events.
In fact, it was a Lions member who first suggested bringing the testing into Coon Rapids High School, almost 15 years ago.
And the trend of community health and wellness continues to grow.
Hospitals are focusing more on empowering people when it comes to community health care needs, said Craig Malm, director of community health improvement for Allina in the northwest metro.
“Just because we’re an acute care organization that doesn’t mean we can’t work on improving healthy communities,” he said. “We’re trying to keep people out of hospitals, even though that’s our core business.”
He calls wellness and preventative health care an effort to “move upstream” in the health care continuum.
Malm’s department has identified childhood obesity as a top priority when it comes to community wellness – partnering with school districts to work on areas of concern to kids, including obesity as well as mental health and wellness.
“I think that’s fundamental to our mission as a non-profit healthcare organization,” said Malm. “Not just to provide acute care and serve the sick, but to do what we can to prevent illness as well.”
Mandy Moran Froemming is at firstname.lastname@example.org