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NIH study: Even small lead reductions improve Native Americans cardio health

New NIH-supported research links small reductions in blood levels of lead among Native Americans to significant cardiovascular benefits.

Though further research with a larger group is needed, the study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association offers hope for lower blood pressure and reduced risk of certain heart diseases.

The project involved 285 members of the Strong Heart Family Study (SHFS), an offshoot of the Strong Heart Study, the largest and longest-running study of cardiovascular health among American Indian adults.

It found that a 2.5% drop per year in blood lead levels (likely due to lead-reduction policies in recent decades affecting paint, gasoline, water, plumbing and canned goods) reduced systolic blood pressure to a degree similar to taking medication or making significant lifestyle changes, such as getting 30 minutes of daily exercise, reducing salt intake or losing weight.

It also was linked to fewer cases of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — abnormal thickening of the heart muscle, especially the left ventricle — which can lead to heart problems, stroke and death.

SHFS includes tribal communities in Arizona, Oklahoma and the Dakotas.

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Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.