Heart study observes 20th year in Forsyth County

Because of the 4,035 Forsyth County residents who participated in a long-running study of heart disease risk factors, researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center and colleagues have made major findings such as how being overweight is associated with becoming disabled and that passive smoking increases the risk of hardening of the arteries.

Participants in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study have been invited to hear an update on the study at a 20th anniversary observance on April 12 at the Hawthorne Inn and Conference Center.

"This study has made important findings about heart disease that wouldn't have been possible without this large group of people who participated," said Lynne E. Wagenknecht, DrPH, professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention at Wake Forest Baptist. "What we've learned from this study has been used by national health organizations to make recommendations to improve heart health for two decades."

The ARIC study, sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, involves four U.S. communities. The other communities - with about 4,000 participants each - are Jackson, Miss., Minneapolis, Minn., and Hagerstown, Md. The study is designed to investigate the natural occurrence of atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of fatty deposits in blood vessels that can lead to heart attack and stroke. The overall goal of the study is to determine what causes heart disease and stroke and why some people are more at risk than others.

Major findings of the study have been:

  • Greater waist circumference and body mass index (a measure involving weight and height) were associated with an increased risk of becoming disabled and being unable to perform activities such as dressing, eating and bathing.
  • Individuals with periodontal disease and tooth loss were more likely to have heart disease.
  • An increased intake of foods containing whole grains was associated with a reduced risk of death and heart disease.
  • Between 1987 and 1996, heart disease deaths declined by 32 percent in men and 38 percent in women, largely because of improvements in survival after heart attacks.
  • Study participants who were smokers when the study began had a 50 percent increase in atherosclerosis compared to participants who did not smoke. Ex-smokers had a 25 percent increase in hardening of the arteries and those who were passive 'smokers' had a 20 percent increase.

Participants were 45 to 64 years old when the study began. They received comprehensive medical evaluations and assessments of their physical activity, oral health, diets, body measurements and other factors that could affect health. In addition, ultrasound tests of the carotid arteries, the vessels in the neck that supply blood to the brain, were used to monitor the evolution of atherosclerosis.

The ultrasound tests were first conducted in 1987-89 and participants were re-tested every three years until 1998. Today, the participants receive follow-up telephone calls to assess their health.

A second part of the ARIC study involves investigating the four communities to determine the rates from hospitalization and deaths from heart attacks and heart disease in men and women from ages 35 to 84. The researcher also measures rates of hospitalization from stroke among study participants. Since 2006, the study has been evaluating all new occurrences of heart failure in the communities.

To date, the ARIC project has published more than 500 articles in peer-reviewed journals and ARIC researchers have presented study data more than 525 times at national and international scientific conferences and meetings. The study is currently funded through January, 2012.

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