"It makes Framingham one of the only studies in the world that could look at heart disease and risk factors in two generations of a single family," said Dr. Daniel Levy, director of the Framingham study.
And today, after 50 years of collecting data, the study has assessed Americans' lifetime risk of developing heart disease - defined as chest pain, heart attack, or sudden cardiac death.
It found that for the average 40-year-old man, there is a one in two chance, and for a woman, a one in three chance, of developing heart problems. Even if people remain disease-free by age 70, the risk is still one in three for men and one in four for women.
"That lifetime risk is high. We have to do everything possible to reach out to people who aren't yet practicing prevention because it's never too late," Dr. Levy said.
Doctors at the Framingham study hope these shocking new statistics will bring the same kind of awareness to heart disease prevention that was brought to breast cancer when a woman's lifetime risk of developing that disease was pegged at one in eight.
John Decollibus and his son, Paul, are both in the study. John's bypass surgery in 1990 was a wake-up call to the rest of the family.
"We knew what we had to do to avoid what happened to him," said son Paul.
Past discoveries from the Framingham study have already paved the way to a 50 percent reduction in deaths from heart attack. But unless more people get the message about heart disease, it will continue to be the leading cause of death in America well into the next century.
Reported By John Roberts ©1999 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved