Peter Amati holds up a black and white photo and declares: “This is the real Peter Amati.”
He’s looking at a photo of his father, with whom he shares a name and a physical resemblance.
“He’s a little guy, shorter than me and tough,” says Amati.
Photos of his parents, children and grandchildren offer one view of how physical traits are passed from one generation of the Amati family to the next.
Information stored inside the confines of a sprawling research complex in Framingham offers another. Amati’s parents were among the 5,200 Framingham residents who, in 1948, signed up to be part of the Framingham Heart Study.
“People were having strokes and heart attacks, but the reasons weren’t clear,” said Dr. Vasan Ramachandran, director of the Framingham Heart Study.
The goal, he says, was to track the volunteers over time and figure out who developed heart disease and why. Back then it wasn’t clear if smoking, or even high blood pressure, was healthy or harmful. In little more than a decade, the original Framingham Heart Study volunteers yielded game-changing information about what puts us at risk for heart disease and stroke.
“High blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol,” Ramachandran said.
Researchers chose Framingham for the study because it was close to medical research centers in Boston and had a stable population of people who, like much of the rest of the country, were part of an emerging middle class.
“My dad came over on the boat from Italy, he went to 7th grade. My mom was a farmer’s daughter, she went to 4th grade,” said Amati. “Every so many years they’d be called in … and they were proud of it.”
And like so many other families with Framingham roots, Amati and his children have followed in that first generation’s footsteps. They, too, are heart study volunteers. Medical records, blood samples and images from some 15,000 volunteers are now housed inside the study’s Framingham headquarters.
There’s always the chance the tests will reveal a medical condition a typical physical might not catch, but Amati’s daughter, Lani Criasia, continues the tradition her grandparents began because she considers being on the vanguard of medical research a privilege.
“I have a blood pressure kit that I take weekly and I wear a smartwatch,” she said. ”They’re monitoring my heart rate and my exercising every day.”
Long before there was a map of the human genome, researchers at the Framingham Heart Study found evidence that heart disease runs in families and there are ways to cut the risk.
Now, Ramachandran said their research goes well beyond the heart: “Almost every part of the body that could be imaged, measured, tested — Framingham has done that.”
The next phase of the Framingham Heart Study will focus on aging — why, and when, diseases of all kinds strike and what we can do to cut the risk. The answers may be within the study’s vast medical archives and the descendants of the volunteers.
“Long term studies like this, that’s what you need,” said third-generation volunteer Scott Amati. “Human beings are only here for so long.”