November 15, 2010

Young Baltimoreans offered free screening for heart disease risks

Some 30 Johns Hopkins cardiologists, nurses, technical staff and administrative volunteers have for the first time partnered with Baltimore City Public Schools to screen for early signs of heart disease in as many as 2,000 high school–bound Baltimore-area students.

The students, all bound for grade 9 in 2011, and their parents were among thousands of city residents attending an annual high school fair at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute on Saturday, Nov. 13. From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Johns Hopkins team offered free examinations to students to screen for key risk factors of heart disease, such as obesity, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, diabetes and a family history of heart disease.

The inaugural risk-screening program is an extension of a Johns Hopkins initiative begun in 2007 that has already screened some 600 top-ranked Maryland high school athletes, ages 14 to 18, for signs of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, inherited heart abnormalities that can lead to  sudden, potentially fatal heart rhythm disturbances often triggered by intense exercise.

“One of the surprise findings from our other heart screenings was that basic risk factors for cardiovascular disease are too common among Maryland high school students, and these students and their parents are simply unaware that they face a serious health problem,” said cardiologist Theodore Abraham, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and its Heart and Vascular Institute.

Abraham pointed out that among the physically strong track sprinters, hurdlers and long jumpers tested to date, 20 percent were technically obese, having a body mass index of more than 25, and some 30 percent had hypertension, with blood pressure readings greater than 130 millimeters of mercury over 80 millimeters of mercury.

“Our disease-screening program is designed to reach young people early, before bad eating and exercise lifestyle habits become engrained, and maximize opportunities to intervene before actual heart disease takes hold,” said Abraham, whose goal is to have such screening programs in high schools across the country.

With parental approval, students answered a 14-question health survey to identify any immediate, personal or family history of heart disease. The survey asked about any recent occurrences of chest pain, shortness of breath or fainting, or use of prescription heart medicines. The students then had their weight and blood pressure recorded, and a finger-prick blood test. Healthy blood cholesterol levels for an average high school student, experts say, is any combination of HDL and LDL that is less than 200 milligrams per deciliter. Blood sugar levels, as an indicator of diabetes, should be no higher than 140 milligrams per deciliter. Every student examined received a raffle ticket for one of 100 $25 Walmart gift certificates.

“We are very grateful to Baltimore City Schools officials Michael Sarbanes, Jonathan Brice, Debbie Thomas and CEO Andres A. Alonso for agreeing to host this important health initiative. We think it is a good way to promote and encourage awareness among school-age children and their parents about the risks of heart disease in the city,” Abraham said.

The screening initiative was made possible with materials and equipment support from The Johns Hopkins Hospital.