Ontario scientists launch “largest health study in the world”

Posted on September 30, 2010 in Health Debates

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TheStar.com – Ontario/halthzone.ca/health
September 29, 2010.   Theresa Boyle, HEALTH REPORTER

Provincial researchers have launched what is expected to become the largest health study on chronic diseases in the world and are hoping up to three million Ontarians will voluntarily participate.

The Ontario Health Study will follow adults through the rest of their lives and produce findings that will help researchers understand the complex web of factors that increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, asthma, Alzheimer’s and other common diseases.

“We will follow people across their entire adult lifespan and we hope that this study outlives those of us who started it. No one has ever tried to engage an entire community in this way before,” Lyle Palmer, an internationally renowned geneticist and epidemiologist who was lured from Australia to lead the study, told a news conference Wednesday.

If one million Ontarians sign onto the population-based study, it will make it the “largest health study in the world,” surpassing a similar one in the United Kingdom, he said.

The study is mostly web-based and will require volunteers, age 18 and older, to start by taking up to 45 minutes to complete a questionnaire at www.Ontariohealthstudy.ca. It asks for examples about health status, medication usage, family medical history, ethnicity, diet and lifestyle habits. All answers are kept confidential.

They will be expected to follow up by completing at least one questionnaire annually.

In return, they will be informed about health risks they face and provided with educational material on disease prevention and health promotion.

Some 100,000 participants will be asked to undergo intensive, four-hour medical assessments every four years. Palmer said these are essentially “free CEO health check-ups,” similar to the very expensive, mostly privately covered medical work-ups that the heads of large corporations undergo annually.

Each assessment will include about 2,000 tests and measurements looking, for example, at vision, hearing, lung function and bone density. Participants will undergo full-body DXA scans, low-density x-rays that show distribution of body fat and muscle. Mental health and physical strength will be assessed. Participants will also be examined for signs of, for example, heart trouble calcification of the aorta or clogging of blood vessels in the neck.

The results will help researchers find new ways to prevent and treat disease, Palmer said. They will inform health policy decisions, for example, pointing to the number of audiologists that need to be trained. The results will also provide guidance for clinicians, for example, in determining if there is value in scanning neck blood vessels in the broader population on a regular basis.

Palmer said that because the study will have such a large sample size, it may reveal “subtle, bad effects” from some medications that weren’t revealed through clinical trials. “It could help us find the next Vioxx in Ontario,” he said, referring to the 2004 recall of the painkiller that was found to be linked to heart attacks and strokes.

The study will cost $8 million annually. Initial funding is coming from the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, Cancer Care Ontario, the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion and the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer.

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