The longest-running heart disease study received a $38 million grant to keep up its work for another six years.
Thanks to a grant from the National, Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the Framingham Heart Study will be in its 77th year by 2025. Principal Investigator and Professor of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine Dr. Vasan Ramachandran and his team plan to focus on the effects of ageing on health and disease.
“With the rapidly increasing number of Americans over the age of 65 years, comprehensive studies of older individuals are invaluable,” he told BU Today.
The Framingham Heart Study was conceived in 1948, when the rise in cardiovascular diseases became apparent after WWII. In 1950, about one in every three men in the US developed cardiovascular disease by age 60 – twice the risk of developing cancer. At the time, just over 5,200 men and women were recruited into the study, with the hope of identifying the risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
About 3,800 research papers have been published to date, using data from the Framingham Heart Study. Much of what we know today has been credited to decades of research by the Framingham study team: how cigarette smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease; how exercise can lower the risk; how these factors contribute to elevated stroke and heart failure risk.
While only 20 people of the original cohort are alive, there is three generations’ worth of data to be mined/studied. In 1971, the second-generation cohort (n=1,900) was recruited and just over three decades later, the third-generation cohort (n=4,000) joined the study. In an effort to increase diversity in the all-Caucasian study, the Framingham team established their first “omnicohort” comprising African-American, Hispanic Asian, Indian, Pacific Islander and Native American ethnicities in 1994. They also began recruiting spouses of third-generation participants in 2005 to improve statistical power and gain a deeper understanding of cardiovascular risk in families.
With multiple generations to study and advanced technology at their disposal, the researchers are confident they will make impressive scientific discoveries in the coming years.
“This will let us do deep phenotyping,” said Dr. Ramachandran. “When this study began, we could measure a few proteins circulating in the blood. Now we have [advanced] screening where we can measure up to 1,300 proteins.”
In addition to studying blood pressure, arterial stiffness and heart function, the scientists will also look at the effects of ageing on the lung, liver, bone and brain. As Baby Boomers assume senior status, this type of research will be critical for understanding and preventing noncommunicable diseases.
Currently, the longest longitudinal study on human development is the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which turned 79 years old in 2017. Study researchers recruited 268 Harvard graduates in 1938 in hopes of identifying the recipe for a healthy, happy life.