Revolutionary Heart Study Moves On

Some 57 years ago, doctors started a long-term study of the health and habits of over 5,200 people in the town of Framingham, Mass. Today, the study's findings are considered nothing short of revolutionary, providing the basis for much of what we know about heart disease.

Cardiologist Dr. Daniel Levy of the Boston University School of Medicine is the author of a new book about the study, called "A Change of Heart." He's also the study's current director, and he spoke to co-anchor Rene Syler as part of "Heartscore," The Early Show's annual, weeklong series about heart disease and prevention.

When the Framingham study started, Syler points out, very little was known about heart disease. "When people were dropping, dying of heart attacks, it was akin to a lightning strike, wasn't it?" she asked.

"It absolutely was," Levy replied. "In 1945, when Roosevelt died of a massive stroke, his blood pressure was running 260 over 150. His doctors had no clue he was about to die of cardiovascular disease. That was the background when the Framingham Heart Study began in 1948."

Why was Framingham picked? "Well, more than anything," Levy relates, "the fact that it was a typical town with ordinary people and average values of things that you would look for. So it was just an average community."

Syler observed that it's from the Framingham study that we now know now that smoking, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, obesity and diabetes are all risk factors for heart disease.

"We take that for granted today," Levy confirmed, "but none of that was known back in 1948 when the study began, and the fact that people know the risk factors -- they understand the concept of risk factors. They may not appreciate that the very term 'coronary disease risk factor' was coined by…two of the prior directors of the Framingham study.

"Our book takes us through that journey of discovery of each of the individual risk factors, and our voyage from a state of ignorance to our current state of knowledge."

The study looked at the original 5,200 subjects, then their children, and now has turned to their grandchildren. What, Syler wanted to know, do the researchers hope to find in the next 20 years?

"Just as the original study began with very little information about what would cause heart disease," Levy explained, "and they went on to discover the key risk factors, today, we're exploring new directions. We're going to be looking for genetic factors related to the development of heart disease with the belief that identifying genes that contribute to the disease will allow us some day to develop new therapies to prevent disease or treat people who have it.

Levy called the Framingham subjects the "unsung heroes" of this story.

To read an excerpt of Levy's book, click here.