Healthy Hearts and Long Lives May Be Fruit of Family Tree

March 13, 2007

BOSTON -- Middle-age volunteers whose parents survived to age 85 or older had significantly better Framingham risk scores than those whose parents died younger, suggesting that cardiovascular longevity may reside in the genes.

BOSTON, March 13 -- The family genes seem to play a significant role in cardiovascular longevity.

Middle-age volunteers whose parents survived to age 85 or older had significantly better Framingham risk scores than those whose parents died younger, suggesting that cardiovascular longevity may carry a genetic component, researchers here reported.

Compared with those whose parents died younger, offspring of long-lived parents were less likely to be smokers, had lower blood pressure, and a more favorable HDL to total cholesterol ratio, Dellara F. Terry, M.D., M.P.H., of the Framingham Heart Study reported in the March 13 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

Dr. Terry and colleagues of Boston University and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute said this was the first study to examine "cardiovascular risk factors in the offspring of longer-lived individuals using independent and validated measurements of cardiovascular risk factors."

In the study of 1,697 Framingham Heart Study offspring members ages 30 or older, there was a dose-response relation between parental longevity and Framingham Risk Score, they said.

The 10-year risk of heart attack or stroke was greatest for those with no surviving parent and lowest for those with both parents surviving to age 85 or older (P for trend,

She noted that a published study reported that women who lived to 100 were more likely to have continued childbearing into their 40s than women who lived to 73. Two explanations have been offered to explain this observation-delayed aging as seen by later menopause or the "possibility that delayed childbirth may be a surrogate for socioeconomic status."

While there were associations between longevity and most elements of the Framingham risk score, there was no significant relationship between BMI progression and parental longevity. For example, men whose parents were long-lived were less likely to be smokers and children of long-lived parents usually were better educated than those whose parents died at a younger age.

And unlike previous study that found differences between the influence of paternal versus maternal longevity, Dr. Terry said "we did not observe significant differences attributable to the sex of the long-lived parent."

Clyde B. Schechter, M.A., M.D., of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, commented the report by Dr. Terry and colleagues "mirror in a community-based study what others have found in more selected groups: the children of parents who live exceptionally long lives have a reduced prevalence of cardiovascular disease risk factors starting as soon as early mid-life."

But in his editorial that accompanied Dr. Terry's study, Dr. Schechter pointed out that no study has addressed the larger question "whether this reduced incidence rate is accounted for by the reduced prevalence of cardiovascular disease risk factors or whether the reduction in incidence exceeds what would be expected even on that basis."

The answer to that question, he wrote, "could provide a new direction in the search for biological mechanisms promoting survival after cardiovascular disease generally."

While the Framingham study has the benefit of both size and long-term continuity, it is limited by the fact that the study cohort was mostly white and middle-class, Dr. Terry said.

Moreover the requirement to have two parents enrolled in the original Framingham Study may have introduced a "healthy volunteer bias."