FRAMINGHAM - Over nearly 60 years, the Framingham Heart Study's contributions to medicine have taught people worldwide how to live healthier lives. Since 1948, more than 15,000 local people have participated in the heart study, which helped lead medicine to better understand the risk of heart attack, stroke and other diseases.
Over nearly 60 years, the Framingham Heart Study's contributions to medicine have taught people worldwide how to live healthier lives.
Since 1948, more than 15,000 local people have participated in the heart study, which helped lead medicine to better understand the risk of heart attack, stroke and other diseases.
It's also become a family affair, as the children and, more recently, the grandchildren of the original participants join the study.
"They taught the medical world, if you work on these risk factors, you won't have to treat the disease," said David Anghinetti who has participated in the heart study since 1971. "That was very groundbreaking."
The value of its research, he said, was really to benefit future generations.
"I think that's why a lot of us pushed this study," said Anghinetti, whose father (now 101), his late mother, his son and his brother have all been participants in the study. "That first generation that came into this study, they were a hell of a bunch of people. They had a real sense of duty."
On Thursday, surviving members of the Framingham Heart Study and their family will be honored by a slate of dignitaries that include, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, National Institutes of Health Director Elias A. Zerhounis and National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Director Elizabeth G. Nabel. The invitation-only event will be held at the Framingham Sheraton Hotel.
In 1948, the study's researchers recruited 5,209 men and women between the ages of 30 to 62 and examined them every two years. At the time, the country was facing a spate of heart attacks after World War II, and public health officials wanted to learn the cause.
The study was launched under the precursor of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and for the last several years, has been operated jointly with Boston University.
Through the study, researchers have learned about "not just taking care of sick people, but keeping healthy people well," said Dr. Philip A. Wolf, who is a professor of neurology, medicine and public health at B.U.'s School of Medicine.
The plan was to find the common factors that contribute to the disease by following a large group of people over a long period of time. Over the past six decades, the study has been credited for identifying many of the risk factors - like high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, obesity and others - associated with cardiovascular disease.
The project added participants' children in 1971 and eventually their grandchildren in 2002 - giving researchers access to more than 15,800 people over the years.
Because the original group was largely white - reflecting Framingham in 1948 - researchers added an "omni cohort" of mostly African-American residents in later years.
Esther Hopkins, a former selectman and now a member of the Keefe Tech School Committee, joined the omni group with her husband when it was formed.
"Whenever there is something that seems to be helpful to the community ... I end up being a part of it," said Hopkins, who moved to Framingham about 40 years ago.
Aside from the long-term help the study's research has made on medicine, the exams have revealed some of the conditions facing participants. Hopkins said the study helped identify her husband's dementia, which he had lived with for about two years, she said. Her husband was the Rev. T. Ewell Hopkins, associate minister of First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, who died in 2001.
The diagnosis of his mental condition led to immediate treatment, she said, and after his death, researchers examined his brain to learn more about dementia. It was a contribution he would have wanted, said Hopkins.
She said many of the participants stay in the study because they are contributing to a larger goal.
"You get a feeling you get to do something concrete" for the cause of medical research, said Hopkins, whose son and daughter-in-law are part of the omni cohort's second generation.
The heart study's newest effort is in genetic research, where researchers seek to identify genes that underlie cardiovascular and other chronic diseases.
They are studying about 9,000 Framingham participants and make use of the Human Genome Project's map of human genes. The goal is to develop better treatments and strategies to prevent those conditions. Results will be shared with experts across the globe for free.
B.U.'s Wolf, a neurologist who joined the study in the late 1960s and now a lead investigator with the program, said Framingham helped uncover the potential causes of stroke.
In the 1960s, doctors saw rising rates of strokes in Framingham, he said, and researchers discovered the links between strokes and high blood pressure through the study's data. That work's findings - first published in 1971 - has largely remained unchanged, he said.
Now officials are looking closely at Alzheimer's disease and dementia - about 600 participants have agreed to donate their brains after death so researchers can learn more about the human brain, he said. Both Hopkins and Anghinetti have agreed to similar donations, continuing the role they've played in the Framingham Heart Study.
"People are amazingly responsive to the requests," said Wolf.
More information about the Framingham Heart Study can be found at www.nhlbi.nih.gov/about/framingham/ and at www.framinghamheartstudy.org.
John Hilliard can be reached at 508-626-4449 or firstname.lastname@example.org.