Framingham Heart Study, 60 Years Later

In 1948, 5,209 people who lived in Framingham, Mass., signed-up for free physicals. Among them were Winifred Trumbull and her husband Robert.

"My husband and I were just married, he had just gotten out of the Army in 1946, and he was going as golf pro at the Framingham Country Club," she told Sunday Morning correspondent Martha Teichner. "In '48, we heard that they were going to have the Framingham heart study and you could get a complete physical for nothing. Well, we had no money to go to the doctor, so we couldn't pass that up."

Trumbull and her husband never imagined they were embarking on a journey that would last some 60 years, eventually involving their children and even their grandchildren. But together, they have been part of the internationally renowned Framingham heart study, and the information gleaned from all those physicals has led doctors to discover some of the most important information we have about the human heart.

For many of the subjects, it has become a matter of pride.

"It's my contribution to the human race," Meg Cowan said.

James Dewey Geoghegan and his wife Helena owned a dairy farm and supplied Framingham with milk and ice cream. The farm is still in the family, like the Framingham Heart Study.

Lawrence Geoghegan and his wife Kathleen are participants. All nine of their children are, too, Geoghegan remembers his parents saying when they signed up, "You never know what good will come out of it."

They were the first ones to go in it, he said. "They were the first group of people that were recruited."

More good than they could ever have imagined, it turns out. Nearly 60 years and three generations into the study, its impact has been profound.

"From the mid-'60s to the present time, death rates from cardiovascular disease have plummeted by 60 to 70 percent," said Dr. Dan Levy, director of the Framingham Heart Study. "And part of the reason we've had that decline in cardiovascular disease death rates has been the legacy of the Framingham Heart Study."

The death of President Franklin Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, was the wake-up call that eventually led to the study. On the day he died, Roosevelt's blood pressure was an unbelievable 300/190. Few doctors then even suspected there was a connection.

Dr. William Kannel has been with the heart study almost from the beginning and was director for 13 years. He said when the study begun, very little was known about things that contribute to heart disease. He said they picked Framingham because it is home to people of many walks of life, which was important, because they had no idea what would matter.

Stable, largely middle-class, and virtually all-white, Framingham seemed like a snapshot of America at the time. Twenty miles west of Boston, it was also close to Boston University, which oversees the study for the National Institutes of Health. The first participants, 5,209 healthy men and women between the ages of 30 and 52, were asked to report every two years for examinations, and the evidence began to accumulate.

"I think the most important thing at the beginning was smoking," Trumball said.

"I think the shock to me was the cholesterol thing," Kathleen Geoghegan said. "I tell everybody I married for ice cream."

"We never thought it was anything serious," Lawrence Geoghegan said.

The early findings were bombshells: smoking, cholesterol, high blood pressure, fat consumption and obesity. At first the nation was in denial. Who knew lifestyle and cardiovascular disease were connected? Practically everything we know now about heart health originated with the Framingham Heart Study.

"The term 'risk factor' was coined at the Framingham Heart Study, and it became part of medical parlance," Dr. Kannel said.

The physical exams take about four hours. In 1994, more than 500 racial and ethnic minorities living in and around Framingham were added to the study to better reflect the diversity of the community today.

Every advance in technology, every scientific breakthrough means that the longer the study goes on, the more valuable the data it generates - three generations of genetic gold to mine.

"We recruited 4,000 grandchildren of the original participants recently and I would beam every time a participant in clinics would say, 'I waited all my life for this day to come, to be part of the study,'" Dr. Levy said.

So do study participants take to heart, so to speak, what's been discovered with their help? The answer is yes and no. After all, they are human.

Winifred Trumbull is usually careful about what she eats. Her daughter Karyn Toy says she is still a junk food junkie and does smoke. But as a nurse, she's seen the results of the heart study save lives.

Her son Matt joined in 2002. He hopes the study will still be around when his kids grow up. And the Geoghegans? James, a lifelong smoker, dropped dead at 84 while watching television.

For years, Kathleen Geoghegan ran a riding school at the farm and now, almost 81, has a stent and a pacemaker.

Her husband, Lawrence, at 83, still does 50-mile trail rides. He doesn't smoke, but does indulge in treats.

"You know the nicest thing God ever made? On a cold winter morning, a hot bowl of oatmeal, you take a slab of vanilla ice cream, put it on," he said.

The heart study message has trickled down to Larry Geoghegan, 43, a massage therapist.

"Your body is the coolest thing you'll ever own," he said. "It's the only thing you live in your whole life. You don't expect to experience love without your body. You don't get to experience your children without your body. This is your ride, you better take care of it. Change the oil, take it out for a spin, keep it clean and enjoy it; have a blast with it."

For more information visit Framingham Heart Study.