Framingham Heart Study at 70: Still Unraveling the Mysteries of CVD

American Heart Association

Today, many Americans know behaviors, like smoking cigarettes and eating a high fat diet, are significant risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD). But for researchers in the 1940s, who were seeing 1 in 2 Americans die from CVD, this knowledge would have been revolutionary.

They were facing an epidemic, and had no way to stop it – until the Framingham Heart Study.

Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, the landmark research study has solved many mysteries about heart disease, given us several groundbreaking treatments, and laid the foundation for our modern understanding of CVD risk factors.

In 1948, under the direction of the National Heart Institute, now the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the study began with 5,209 adult subjects all from Framingham, Massachusetts. Today, the study is on its third generation of participants.

Daniel Levey, M.D., director of the Framingham Heart Study, spoke at a recent NHLBI lecture series commemorating the 70th anniversary. He described the profound impact that the study continues to have on lowering the CVD mortality rate.

Levey said that because of Framingham’s research over 1.4 million deaths were averted in 2014.

Since the Framingham Heart Study is a project of the NHLBI, it has been in danger of congressional budget cuts since its inception. 

Levey said during the 1960s it appeared that the Framingham Heart Study would be permanently shut down.

On May 27, 1969, due to budget limitations, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a directive ordering the study to be phased out over the subsequent year.

It took a passionate letter from Paul Dudley White, a founder of the study and the American Heart Association, to persuade the Nixon administration to intervene and restore the necessary funding to continue the Framingham Heart Study.

Today the need for heart research is just as great. Yet, the Framingham Heart Study and other important CVD and stroke research continues to be underfunded.

According to 2016 NIH statistics, just 4% of NIH’s budget is invested in heart research, a mere 1% on stroke research. 

The current funding level is not commensurate with scientific opportunities, the number of people afflicted with CVD, or the physical and economic toll exacted on our nation.

Rep. Katherine Clark, (D-MA-05) whose district includes the town of Framingham, said the revolutionary study serves as an outstanding example of the cures we can uncover when we make significant investments in research. 

“Our investments in scientific research ensures that families live longer, healthier lives, pay our economy back in dividends in our health care savings, and maintain our country’s and our commonwealth’s leadership in the global innovation economy,” she said.

Cardiovascular disease inflicts the highest burden on our nation’s health and economy, and it’s only projected to get worse.

An estimated 45%  of the U.S. adult population are projected to have CVD by 2035, with total annual costs reaching more than $1 trillion.

Policymakers, researchers and advocates must work together to enhance NIH investment, so we continue innovative studies like Framingham and find cures for heart disease and stroke.

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Without research, there is no hope.
The Honorable Paul G. Rogers