A new federal research grant will enable the Framingham Heart Study, the nation’s longest running multigenerational study of cardiovascular disease, to explore the biology of aging.
In the next phase of the 71-year-old study, researchers from Boston University’s School of Medicine will measure changes in traits such as blood pressure, stiffness of arteries, stickiness of blood platelets, and fat accumulation in the liver of participants — most of them children or grandchildren of Framingham residents first enrolled in the study in 1948.
“This will let us do deep phenotyping,” said Dr. Vasan Ramachandran, principal investigator and BU director of the Framingham Heart Study. “Technology has changed. 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.”
The six-year extension of the famous longitudinal study will be funded by a $38 million award, announced Tuesday, from the US National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Ramachandran said a better understanding of aging and the determinants of health and disease in older people is especially important as the number of Americans over 65 climbs rapidly in the coming decade. Researchers will be examining not only the aging of the heart, but also the aging of brain, the liver, and other organs, he said.
The researchers will be collecting and analyzing blood and tissue from about 1,900 people in a second-generation study cohort, recruited in 1971, who are children of the original participants. While the first-generation cohort and their children are Caucasian, the study will also include about 450 people in an “omni-cohort,” recruited in 1995, that includes African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and other nonwhite residents.
Among the study’s goals is to track the aging of the second-generation — and, eventually, about 4,000 people in a third-generation cohort, grandchildren of the original participants who were recruited in 2002, as they move into middle age and old age.
“Because of the nature of the cohorts, one of the main things we’ll be able to examine is the biology of aging,” Ramachandran said.
From the start, the study’s mission was to identify the common factors that contributed to cardiovascular disease by tracking its development in patients over long periods. It recognized early on how smoking increased the risk of heart disease, and also pointed to, among other things, the benefits of exercise and the heightened stroke risk from high blood pressure.
Federal researchers selected Framingham for the study after World War II because, while mostly homogeneous, it was considered an average middle-class community close to Boston, a medical research hub.
Only about 20 of the original 5,200 participants are still alive, and many of them — as well as their children and grandchildren — have since left Framingham. Those in the study today live all around the United States, though about 80 percent are in New England.