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NIH Record

Framingham Heart Study Celebrates 50 Years

By Louise Williams

The autumn afternoon was stiflingly hot and the non-air-conditioned, stately Memorial Building in Framingham, Mass., was packed. But the thousands gathered there didn't mind. They'd come to celebrate an extraordinary anniversary -- the 50th year of the Framingham Heart Study (FHS), the longest running epidemiological study in U.S. medicine.

The attendees -- who included U.S. surgeon general Dr. David Satcher, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute director Dr. Claude Lenfant, past FHS directors and the current director, congressmen, state representatives, TV journalist Dr. Timothy Johnson, and more than 1,500 FHS staff and participants -- had a lot to celebrate. Since its start in 1948, the FHS has saved and improved countless lives in the United States and worldwide.

The town of Framingham is 18 miles west of Boston. The study, part of NHLBI, began with 5,209 healthy Framingham residents, ages 30-60 -- about 20 percent of the town's population -- and grew to include 5,124 of their children (and their spouses) in an Offspring Study. More recently, 500 members of Framingham's minority residents were recruited to form the Omni Study.

FHS's many achievements include discoveries about the relations between risk factors and cardiovascular disease (CVD). The FHS helped make Americans aware of the health dangers of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity and smoking. The study also has published findings on such topics as psychosocial factors and heart disease, diabetes, obesity and dementia.

As Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) told the crowd, "The thousand scientific papers produced by Framingham have become the holy book" of medicine. The findings have "moved America toward prevention," he added, "giving the message that people can control their own destiny."

Lenfant thanked participants for their "dedication and enormous contributions to the study and to medical knowledge. The study could not have succeeded without the commitment of the people of Framingham."

His thanks were echoed throughout the afternoon. Dr. Aram Chobanian, dean of Boston University's School of Medicine, who has used Framingham data in his research, said, "Thank you for all you have done for cardiology, medicine, and all the people in the United States."

Satcher, who gave the afternoon's keynote address, also thanked the Framingham participants for their "commitment, dedication, and perseverance." He said he'd asked himself what makes FHS so special and came up with six key factors: The study is scientifically rigorous, longitudinal, community- and family-based, and has always involved men and women, and most of all has mutual trust between participants and staff. "The issue of trust and its development is a real challenge," he said. "And that's true whether about a study or any kind of medical care in the United States."

He said Framingham changed how people look at health and disease. "Before, a lot of people, especially when it came to cardiovascular diseases, thought it was a matter of luck or fortune. Framingham shows that it's not just that but how people behave," including the dangers posed by risk factors.

He added that "Framingham shows us that just as we use the public health approach in infectious diseases, we also can intervene with chronic diseases." He stressed that prevention through public education has to become a way of life in America. "Too few physicians are putting prevention into practice," he said and called for a worldwide effort to promote healthy lifestyles.

Current FHS director Dr. Daniel Levy called his staff the "unsung heroes" of the Framingham story. "You and the ordinary citizens of Framingham have advanced our understanding of coronary heart disease."

He also pledged that the Framingham story had only begun. "Today and in future years, Framingham will continue to have a great impact on many lives. We and you are not done yet."

He said studies under way cover such topics as early identification of CVD in those still free of symptoms, investigations of the genetic causes of CVD, arthritis, and osteoporosis, and more research on racial and ethnic differences in risk factor development.

The afternoon also brought a message of congratulations from President Clinton. But mostly, the afternoon was a demonstration of the bond that exists between FHS's participants and staff, who took time before and after the formal presentations to warmly thank each other.

Participant spokesperson Jay Lander, a member of the Offspring Study, described how many felt about being part of FHS. "We go through life, most of us," he said, "knowing only the effect we have on the people around us...Only a small percentage of people get to make a permanent contribution to humanity."

He added, "But this study has given each of us in Framingham some small role in producing a lasting achievement," and "as long as the planet is inhabited, the contribution of Framingham to the quality of that life will be remembered."

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