Our editorial team thought it appropriate to take the opportunity to shed light on a heart disease prevention pioneer. Jeremiah Stamler, MD, (1919-2022) passed away earlier this year, at the age of 102, at his home in Sag Harbor, NY.
We’ve compiled excerpts from profiles published by the World Heart Federation and the American Heart Association which we feel adequately reflect on his life’s work.
According to the World Heart Federation (WHF), Stamler was one of the founders of the Ten Day epidemiology teaching seminar, created in 1968 with support from the International Society and Federation of Cardiology (now the World Heart Federation) Council on Epidemiology and Prevention. Through his ground-breaking research, he demonstrated that a lifestyle that included a healthier diet, exercising, not smoking and reducing salt intake increased life expectancy and reduced the likelihood of heart disease and stroke.
In a moving and motivational feature published by WHF after Stamler’s passing, Science Committee members, Professors Kay-Tee Khaw, MD, MSC, PhD, and Samuel Gidding, MD, spoke about his provocative leadership which will be long remembered in the cardiovascular health world. With thanks for their perspective, here are excerpts from the WHF interview.
When asked how Professor Stamler contributed to cardiovascular prevention, Gidding said: “It is impossible to over-estimate his influence on research in cardiovascular prevention. He was one of the first to demonstrate, from rigorous epidemiologic studies, conducted in the United States and internationally, the concept of cardiovascular risk, related to chronic exposure to elevated blood pressure, cholesterol, tobacco use, and obesity, on incident cardiovascular disease. He then extended these observations by helping develop the earliest cardiovascular clinical trials, to show the benefit of reduction of blood pressure on reduction of adverse cardiovascular outcomes.”
His influence at NIH led to the funding of the landmark United States long term observational studies of cardiovascular risk, Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA), Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study (ARIC) and Cardiovascular Health Study (CHS). extending findings related to cardiovascular risk across generations, across gender, across racial and ethnic barriers, and to novel risk factors and cardiovascular imaging and genetics, pioneered by these studies. His emphasis on the most rigorous methodology, both in data collection and statistical analysis, influences study design to this day.”
“Jerry believed fervently that a researcher should take political responsibility for his or her data,” said Gidding. He added, “That is, epidemiology not only embraced understanding public health and risk, it embraced risk factor control. It is not hyperbolic to credit Jerry, at least in part, for the dramatic reductions in cardiovascular events and mortality in countries where this advice was followed.”
In noting Stamler’s profound impact on young cardiologists today, Khaw offered this:
“His impact on preventive cardiology is unquestionable and documented extensively. However, his determination to change the world for the better encompassed not just his enormous body of scientific research and his efforts to implement effective public health policy but also his tireless mentoring and training of huge numbers of colleagues internationally. His determination always to do the right thing and his exceptional courage is an example to us all.”
AHA Pays Tribute to Father of Preventive Cardiology
An American Heart Association online news profile published on January 26, 2022, after Stamler’s passing shared a thorough and heartfelt summary of his life and work according to his peers. A summary of that article follows:
A pioneer in helping to curb the epidemic of hypertension, Stamler in the 1970s put the cardiovascular risk factors of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, a high-fat diet and smoking on the map. His findings were considered controversial and were met with opposition, but he stuck by his research. Colleagues credit his work as a major force behind the significant decline in heart disease death rates since the 1960s.
"It is no exaggeration to say that few people in history have had as great an impact on human health," said Donald Lloyd-Jones, MD, ScM, FAHA, chair of the department of preventive medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago and 2021-2022 President of the American Heart Association. "Jerry was a giant intellect and led in defining new prevention concepts right up until his last days. He was always innovating, and he was a kind and gentle soul who believed in people."
Stamler was the founding chair of the preventive medicine department at Northwestern University, where he was still working on cutting-edge research at the time of his death. He trained and mentored hundreds of health professionals around the world. He authored and co-authored over 2,000 peer-reviewed manuscripts, studies and books that have shaped U.S. public policy for decades, and he was a relentless activist for the causes he cared about. Stamler was a major proponent of a Mediterranean-type diet – which is rich in fruit, vegetables, olive oil and fish and low in sugar, salt and saturated fat – and credited his approach to eating for his good health.
"He lived exactly what he preached, and it worked out very well for him," said Lloyd-Jones. "He took his science very seriously, but he also had a wonderful sense of fun. He would say, 'If it isn't fun, it isn't epidemiology.'"
Stamler was the son of Russian immigrants. He was born in Brooklyn in 1919 and grew up in West Orange, New Jersey. His exposure to healthy eating decisions came very early. Stamler had said his father turned his nose at white bread after arriving in the U.S., instead feeding his family a diet of hearty ryes and whole grains.
He attended Columbia University and earned his medical degree from the Long Island School of Medicine in 1943. He entered the Army after medical school and served as a radiologist in Bermuda as World War II wound down. He then moved to Chicago with his first wife, Rose, and took a job in a lab working on cardiovascular issues with pioneering cardiology researcher Louis Katz, MD.
Stamler explored the interactions of diet, hormones, blood pressure and lipids in vascular disease. Rose, a sociologist by training, also became a major force in cardiovascular disease and hypertension research.
His research focused on the tiny molecules our bodies make based on diet, environment and genes, and how those molecules can lead to health problems. Ultimately, his research yielded findings now taken for granted: High blood pressure and high cholesterol are both linked to cardiovascular disease.
In 1958, Stamler joined Northwestern University's department of medicine as an assistant professor. He also took a position in Richard J. Daley's Public Health Department, bringing his expertise to city government. With risk factors identified, he was ready to put what he'd learned into practice through prevention. He created a Heart Disease Control Program, worked on rheumatic fever prevention in kids, and encouraged Chicagoans to broil and roast their food instead of fry, while suggesting they eat more vegetables, fruit and seafood.
After Rose died in 1998, Stamler married his childhood sweetheart, Gloria. The couple split their time between New York, a home in Italy and Chicago, where Stamler reviewed peers' research into his 100s, receiving documents by fax. Lloyd-Jones said "his comments were solid gold. He was sharp right up to the end."