UWI Researchers Study Cardiovascular Risk in Young People


Researchers at the University of the West Indies (UWI) are conducting a study into the ‘Impact of Early Life Experience on Cardiovascular Risk in Adolescence in Jamaica’, as part of efforts to reduce the prevalence of the disease, which accounts for 50 per cent of deaths in Jamaica.
Professor Rainford Wilks, lead researcher and Director of the Epidemiology Research Unit, which falls under the Tropical Medicine Research Institute (TMRI) at the UWI, explains that the research is to further understand the pattern of the disease in Jamaica, by looking at the impact of early life experiences.
“We feel that the project is important because not only will the data be relevant to Jamaica, but we feel that it will be relevant to countries at our stage of development and also representative of our ethnic make up,” says Professor Rainford Wilks.
Over the next 18 months, Professor Wilks and colleagues will gather the data, publish and discuss them with the policy makers in both the non-governmental and governmental sectors, including the Ministry of Health, with the expressed purpose of developing interventions, which will gradually reduce the burden of the disease.
The study is an extension of research started in 1986 on 1,500-1,700 children born that year. Data was obtained about their birth weight, socio-economic background and other factors.
The group was studied again when they were six years old and various important observations were made. For instance, it was noticed that children, who had a low birth weight, were already experiencing high blood pressure at 6 years old.
With the group now 18 years old, the TMRI wanted to continue their intensive study to identify risk factors for the disease during the adolescent years.
“The world literature suggests that this is about the time when we might be seeing some manifestations of cardiovascular disease. We feel that by studying them at this point in their lives, we will be able to identify practical and culturally specific interventions, which will teach us how to intervene and ameliorate the epidemic,” Professor Wilks notes.
The CHASE Fund is financing this new stage of the project at a cost of $3.6 million. The University Hospital of the West Indies is providing three research nurses to help with the research.
Cardiovascular disease refers to any abnormal condition of the heart or circulatory systems such as coronary heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure among several others.
Described as the silent epidemic, the disease accounts for about 50 per cent of deaths in Jamaica. It is the leading cause of death in hospitals and is the second leading contributor to extended hospital stays.
“Cardiovascular disease is also the third leading cause of cost to the health sector in terms of hospitalisation in Jamaica. This silent epidemic of cardiovascular disease is affecting Jamaica in a very serious way, both financially and in terms of productivity,” says Professor Wilks.
Given that Jamaica has a young population, the project is timely because the TMRI wants to identify the risk factors with the view of determining the most effective interventions. “There is good evidence that lifestyle interventions, sometimes supplemented by medication, can in fact ameliorate this epidemic of cardio vascular disease,” he asserts.
“We feel that youngsters are likely to be more amenable to intervention, which would include lifestyle ones such as the cessation of smoking, increased activity, the reduction of certain dietary practises and keeping their weight down,” he notes further. Holland is an example of a country that has successfully reduced their death rate from cardiovascular diseases by targeting the whole population and encouraging people to walk and ride bicycles in their leisure time. There have also been successes in Southern Europe, but in most of the cases, the success has been registered in countries deemed among the developed.
Cardiovascular disease is particularly a major problem in developing countries as it kills people in their useful years, whereas in developed countries, people dying of the disease tend to be of retirement age.
Professor Wilks says that over the last 50 years, the disease profile in Jamaica has resembled that of a developed country. “We no longer predominantly have so-called tropical diseases of infection and under-nutrition, although there are still pockets of these. We are now burdened by the so called chronic non-communicable diseases, of which cardiovascular disease is the leading one,” he points out.

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