WASHINGTON, Nov. 8 (UPI) -- The granddaddy of all heart research, the Framingham Heart Study, will begin studying the grandchildren of the original volunteers, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute and Boston University said Thursday.
Data collected from the on-going study of the health and habits of residents of Framingham, Mass., a Boston suburb, established many of the risk factors for heart disease and stroke, such as smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.
Heart experts are enthusiastic about expansion of the study, which began in 1948. Dr. David Meyerson, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Md., and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association, told United Press International: "The notion of cardiac risk factors and their importance was born out of Framingham. To be able to recruit and study a third generation will give powerful insight into genetic-based disease as well as other modifiable risk factors."
The study began by enrolling 5,209 men and women who agreed to undergo yearly physical exams and to answer questions about lifestyle, said study director Dr. Daniel Levy in an interview with UPI.
In 1971, the study was expanded to include 5,124 children of the original study volunteers. In the third generation study, Levy said he hopes to enroll 3,500 grandchildren of Framingham's first generation.
While the new study will continue to track the effects of diet, exercise, smoking and alcohol, as well as measure heart function using electrocardiograms and blood tests, Levy said it also will use electron beam computed tomography or EBCT to detect calcium in arteries.
Many heart specialists say calcium in arteries is an early sign of heart disease and EBCT can detect it even before other classic risk factors, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure or heart disease symptoms such as chest pain or shortness of breath.
The test is considered controversial, however, because other experts say there is no data to definitively link calcium in the arteries to actual heart disease. Opponents of EBCT say the test is over-used and of little clinical value.
Levy said data collected by the Framingham grandchildren study might settle the dispute once and for all.
"By collecting seven years of data, we should be able to accurately assess the significance of EBCT findings," he said.
Levy said the Framingham team is likely to be faced with a more difficult task recruiting the third generation because "society is more mobile than when we started and many of the grandchildren may have moved away, which will make it difficult for them to get here for the examinations and to be willing to give us a half day each year." He said the annual exam takes about a half day.
When the study was initiated, Framingham was a white, middle-class community and so the Framingham volunteers have been "white Americans," said Levy. He said some researchers have questioned the applicability of the findings to other races and ethnic groups.
In recognition of these concerns, Levy said the investigators began recruiting for a more ethnically diverse study -- called OMNI -- in 1995 and also are working with researchers in Jackson, Miss., on the a similar population based-study.
Levy said, however, "We have found that across different races and ethnic groups, the risk factors identified at Framingham remain risk factors."
Meyerson agreed and said, "Human beings are far more similar than they are different based on race."
Levy said the study would be recruiting third generation volunteers through 2003, so results based on findings from this new group will not be reported before 2004 at the earliest.
(Reported by Peggy Peck in Cleveland, Ohio.)