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Published: 2023-05-17

Studying the human heart

NEWS Preventing cardiovascular disease and helping those who do fall ill to live longer, healthier lives: that is the main goal of Ulf Näslund’s research. One source that has been invaluable for his research is the unique data from Region Västerbotten’s public health-check programme.

Text: Ola Nilsson

One of the main challenges in preventing and treating cardiovascular disease and diabetes is low patient compliance with doctors’ recommendations and medication regimes. In an attempt to change that, the Västerbotten Intervention Programme Visualization of Atherosclerosis (VIPVIZA) research programme was set up. About 40 doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows from different departments make up the programme’s research team, which is led by Ulf Näslund. They hail from fields as diverse as psychology, behavioural sciences, molecular biology and various clinical specialties.

Apart from the biochemical aspects of and traditional risk factors for cardiovascular disease, the team also studies relevant psychological, behavioural and socioeconomic factors, to analyse how they hinder or advance prevention.

With cardiovascular disease, changing the way you live and taking the right medication is a matter of life and death.

One noteworthy result of the VIPVIZA programme is a study that showed that patients who are shown ultrasound images of their own calcified carotid arteries become better at following doctors’ orders and taking their medication. Participants in the study were sent a letter with a coloured graph and image from their ultrasound scan, along with the information that the calcification of their arteries could be halted, and even reserved, if they would take preventive measures and agree to a follow-up phone call with a nurse. A check-up three years later showed that compliance with medical advice and medication regimens had been much better among those who had been shown their scans, than among a similar-sized control group. The former also had a lower waist circumference, lower blood pressure and smoked less. In total, 3,500 people took part in the study.

A matter of life and death

“With cardiovascular disease, changing the way you live and taking the right medication is a matter of life and death. Which is why it’s so heartening to see that a relatively simple measure, like showing patients images of their own arteries, has such a demonstrable effect over time,” says Ulf Näslund.

The data from Västerbotten’s public health-check programme has been a key source of data for Ulf Näslund’s research into cardiovascular disease. For years now, Västerbotten residents turning 40, 50 and 60 have been called in for a health check-up, where their blood pressure,

cholesterol, blood sugar and other key levels are measured, and where they are given personalised medical advice. Over the years, 184,000 people have participated in these check-ups. The result is an extensive and unique dataset that has proved invaluable for research on public health, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

About Ulf Näslund

Ulf Näslund used to be a senior consultant physician of cardiology and head of operations at the University Hospital of Umeå’s Heart Centre. In 2015, he became professor of cardiology at Umeå University and was head of the Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine until 2021.