Innovations and Inaugurations: John F. Kennedy

Innovations and Inaugurations: John F. Kennedy

01.16.13 | By Karl Uhlendorf

In 1961, the year that John F. Kennedy took office as the 35th POTUS, a huge milestone in cardiovascular research was achieved: data from the Framingham Heart Study definitively revealed a link between high blood cholesterol levels and heart disease.

What followed - scores of subsequent public/private research and published studies, the development and launch of the first statin in the U.S. in 1987 (during Ronald Reagan's second term), better control of cholesterol levels among U.S. adults, falling death rates from cardiovascular disease - is the stuff of medical lore.

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. According to the CDC, about 600,000 people die of heart disease in the U.S. every year -accounting for about a quarter of all deaths.

Yet, death rates from cardiovascular disease declined more than 30% from 1998 to 2008, the American Heart Association recently reported. A 2007 study in JAMA showed that between 1999 and 2005, death rates for heart failure and heart attack decreased nearly by half - thanks to greater use of cholesterol medicines, blood thinners and angioplasty.

While there were many research milestones that led to a better understanding of the role of cholesterol and the eventual discovery of statins, the Framingham Heart Study's pioneering work was a pivotal moment - and one that I think about with a sense of personal pride.

I was born in Framingham, MA in the late '60s. My grandfather was in the initial cohort of 5,209 men and women from Framingham who agreed to participate in a series of physical exams and lifestyle interviews that would be used to identify common patterns related to the development of cardiovascular disease.

My dad and uncle followed suit, participating in the second-generation cohort, which commenced in 1971. Then in 2002, with the enrollment of a third generation of participants (the grandchildren of the original group), I had the opportunity to carry the torch. Every few years I travel back to Framingham for a half day of CV tests -some basic and others highly sophisticated diagnostic screens. Prior to my last visit, study investigators added a brain MRI and cognitive/memory quizzes with an eye to connections between cardiovascular risk factors and their possible impact on the brain.

Nearly 52 years ago, JFK challenged the American people to "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." When it comes to medical research - whether it's clinical trials or longitudinal studies such as Framingham that contribute significantly to our understanding of disease and the pathway to future treatments - patient volunteers make it possible. It's a commitment that I hold dear, and I hope that someday my children will have the opportunity to follow suit as fourth-generation participants.

A few related tidbits:

  • The Framingham Heart Study is a joint project between the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and Boston University. Check out these research milestones.
  • The study coined the term "risk factor" in cardiovascular disease (high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, smoking, obesity, diabetes, and physical inactivity), and has created related risk score profiles used by clinicians throughout the world.
  • For an interesting historical overview on statins, check out this article in the National Library of Medicine's archives by Akira Endo, a Japanese biochemist whose work on fungi and cholesterol paved the way to the development of statins.

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