Jeff Breece had just turned 47. His blood pressure and cholesterol levels were normal. He lifted weights regularly.
So he was blindsided when he ended up in an emergency department and doctors told him he’d had a widow-maker heart attack, indicating severe blockage in a crucial artery.
Three years later, Breece is part of an initial group of people participating in the American Heart Association’s My Research Legacy, a new initiative aimed at collecting biometric, genetic and medical data from 250,000 volunteers.
The goal is to use the information to foster scientific discoveries on cardiovascular disease and stroke and eventually find ways to predict whether someone is at risk — and prevent an event from happening.
“It will help further research all over the place,” said Breece, a Downtown resident who serves as an ambassador for the program. “It’s gonna save lives.”
Columbus is a test city for My Research Legacy, with the Heart Association's central Ohio chapter helping to promote the project.
“We have the opportunity to unlock personal health data to drive scientific discovery,” said Brenda Houston, executive director of the chapter. “Clues that may solve cures for heart disease and stroke are hiding in smartphones, fitness trackers, in genomic data and within medical records.”
Anyone over 21 can volunteer to donate data regardless of health status or history, said Dr. Jennifer Hall, chief of the Heart Association's Institute for Precision Cardiovascular Medicine. In return, volunteers learn more about their health and ways to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
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“We provide information back to them and interact with them throughout the course of their lifetime,” Hall said. “This is kind of a new breakthrough where individuals are not just providing information, but they’re part of the research, an active part.”
Data goes into a secure, private location built by the Heart Association, she said, and identifying information is removed. It will be shared with researchers with certain credentials who are asking particular scientific questions.
Finding patterns and determining how a person progresses from good health to disease are crucial.
“That’s when we start to turn the corner in being able to prevent stroke in various individuals,” she said. “That’s what’s so exciting about the program.”
Since his heart attack, Breece, who is now 50, has lived with a stent in his left anterior descending artery, which supplies the heart with blood. He takes aspirin and other medications daily and has become an avid runner.
After the attack, he reached out to an American Heart Association online support group, where he discovered survivors like himself coping with depression, anxiety, fear and questions about post-attack life. He became a volunteer support-network moderator, which led to his My Research Legacy ambassadorship.
He hopes his participation leads to better heart-attack warning systems and helps prevent people from having strokes.
"If I could provide value just by letting them know what my heart rate is, what my doctor's saying, if I can provide value to my nation in some small way that would be something good to leave behind," he said.
To volunteer or find additional information, visit myresearchlegacy.org.