The Strong Heart Study of American Indians (SHS) is one of the largest and longest-running epidemiological and genetic studies involving Native Americans in the country, involving more than 7,600 participants since 1988. 30 years ago, NIH researchers began looking at particular risk factors for heart disease in the Native American population. SHS scientists and their collaborators across the country found Native Americans have some of the highest rates of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease among people of various ethnicities.
Texas Biomed in San Antonio, Texas, has just been awarded a $3 million grant to continue its work on this important project. The money is a sub-award being issued from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center with prime funding coming from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Shelley Cole, Ph.D., Associate Professor and co-lead of the Population Health program at Texas Biomed, will direct the Strong Heart Study Genetics Center and Chair the Strong Heart Study Steering Committee.
“We’re really excited at the prospect of getting additional longitudinal data on this population,” Cole said. “It’s sometimes difficult to convince funders that it’s important to continue when the study has been going on for a very long time. Because there’s so much data already, adding to it with another round of exams adds exponential value to the existing information.”
The Strong Heart Study partners with 12 different tribes in 3 different regions: Arizona, Oklahoma, and North and South Dakota. Data and samples collected over the past four decades are a treasure trove of information for researchers and partnering tribes. All results from the study receive tribal approval before they are released.
“We really want to find culturally appropriate ways of improving American Indian health,” Cole stressed. “It’s not likely going to be the exact same approaches taken with the community at large in the U.S. As a human geneticist, I know that we really need to have information on all human population groups to make wise decisions about how to handle public health issues.”
The Strong Heart Study has already sparked changes in the way medical professionals screen and advise their Native American patients. Since many of the tribes live in rural communities, they do not have easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Studies are underway to explore ways to get more fresh produce available to the tribes.
Other organizations involved in the Strong Heart Study include:
- Medstar Health Research Institute in Arizona and Maryland
- University of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City
- Missouri Breaks Industries Research, Inc. in South Dakota
- Weill Cornell Medical College in New York
This research is funded by NHLBI contract #HHSN26818HV00001R.