Behind the Scenes at NHANES

With the current United States population at nearly 319 million, obtaining widespread health data can be a challenging task. However, for more than 50 years, CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) program has measured our nation’s health and nutrition by traveling across the country in three Mobile Examination Centers (MECs). Inside the MECs, NHANES workers survey 5,000 Americans in 15 cities each year about everything from the size of the pizza slice they ate for dinner to the enamel on their teeth.

In mid-May, I had the great pleasure of visiting one of the MECs in Georgia and taking a tour with CDC Foundation guests and members of our board. Dr. Kathryn Porter, Director of the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) Division of NHANES, walked us through the surprisingly spacious MEC and gave us insight into the data that NHANES collects. A memory I’ll always keep with me is that of CDC Foundation board member and NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo getting measured for his height—and exceeding the maximum measurement.

Beyond taking a snapshot of America’s health and informing everything from pediatric growth charts to a landmark policy that removed lead from gasoline, NHANES data also informs U.S. businesses’ efforts. For example, businesses from airlines to clothing manufacturers to toy producers have used NHANES measurement statistics to develop sizing for the various products they design and manufacture. Growth in overweight and high cholesterol levels have steered education and prevention programs toward people at risk and informed efforts to measure and curtail risk factors associated with heart disease, the number one cause of death in the United States.

I encourage you to join me for a fascinating behind-the-scenes MEC tour for a firsthand look at an important aspect of CDC's work that impacts the health of all Americans.


Charles Stokes is president and CEO of the CDC Foundation.