Funding Renewed For Bogalusa Heart Study

May 1, 1998

Dianne Ludlam

Funding has been renewed for another five years for the historic, decades-old Bogalusa Heart Study. For 25 years, researchers have conducted an ongoing epidemiological study that has tracked the natural history of heart disease and nutrition status of more than 14,000 children and young adults from the small Louisiana town of Bogalusa.

Researchers, led by Gerald S. Berenson, director of the Tulane Center for Cardiovascular Health in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, have studied the diets of thousands of children, analyzed their blood for cholesterol, measured blood pressure, height and weight, and conducted interviews about the children's parents' food and lifestyle habits.

It is the longest-running study of cardiovascular risk factors in children, adolescents and young adults in a bi-racial community. The federally funded Bogalusa Heart Study has well documented the fact that heart disease begins long before age 22, Berenson says.

The Tulane Center for Cardiovascular Health, an outgrowth of the renowned study, has found that risk factors such as high cholesterol can be traced to infancy and that symptoms of adult heart disease begin to show in childhood. The data-collecting phase of the Bogalusa Heart Study has been supported primarily by funds from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the U.S. Public Health Service.

The $14 million funding for the next five years, also provided primarily by NHLBI, takes the study into a new area, says Paul Whelton, dean of Tulane's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

"This is very new and exciting. We're going into uncharted waters," he says, explaining that the study will now look at population genetics and how it interfaces with environmental exposures, such as diet, exercise and cigarette smoking. "It's nature vs. nurture, if you will," Whelton says.

One of the project's goals is to utilize the data already collected and to focus on the hereditary aspects of heart disease. Administration of the study is now a collaboration between Tulane and the University of Texas in Houston, with a committee, headed by Whelton, coordinating the study.

"We get additional scientific firing power and a lot of good ideas that are helpful," Whelton says. "This cooperative agreement should provide for optimal results as we take this innovative study into a completely different direction."

Whelton says the Bogalusa study has always generated a high level of enthusiasm, adding that the landmark study is known nationally and internationally.

"Few studies last three months, but this study has managed to stay fresh for 25 years," he says. "That is a magnificent tribute and it reflects on its absolute stars. Dr. Berenson deserves a great deal of credit, along with his faculty, staff and students. But the ones who deserve the most credit are the people of Bogalusa. They had the least to gain, but they have been the most motivated. They have contributed to the welfare of the nation and the world in a way perhaps no other community in this part of the country has."

Berenson, who grew up in Bogalusa and still maintains a farm there, said researchers initially did not recognize the power of a study involving such a well-defined population within a specified geographic area. But thanks to this landmark study, researchers for the first time were able to analyze sex and racial differences from a healthy pediatric population over a long period of time.

"I think that's what makes the study so powerful," he adds. Berenson has translated the scientific findings from the study into a practical and comprehensive health education model for kindergarten through sixth-grade students.

This model, Health Ahead/Heart Smart, is now being implemented in many schools in Orleans Parish and at schools across the nation. The program teaches children about healthy lifestyle choices, including eating habits, exercise and self-esteem.

For his work in research, intervention and clinical application in cardiovascular health, Berenson has been named the 1998 winner of the prestigious Joseph Stokes Award in Preventive Cardiology to be given at the 38th annual conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention in Santa Fe, N.M. Tulane University Medical Center recently honored Berenson by establishing the Berenson Endowed Chair in Preventive Cardiology.

The kickoff phase of the fund-raising campaign for the endowed chair has begun. The goal is to raise $600,000 in hopes of applying for a state match to fully fund a $1 million chair to ensure the continuation of Berenson's research in prevention of heart disease far into the future.

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