Despite the decline in coronary heart disease in many European countries, the disease remains an enormous public health problem. Although we know a great deal about environmental risk factors for coronary heart disease, a heritable component was recognized a long time ago. The earliest and best known examples of how our genetic constitution may determine cardiovascular risk relate to lipoprotein(a), familial hypercholesterolaemia and apolipoprotein E. In the past 20 years a fair number of polymorphisms assessed singly have shown strong associations with the disease but most are subject to poor repeatability. Twins constitute a compelling natural experiment to establish the genetic contribution to coronary heart disease and its risk factors. GenomEUtwin, a recently funded Framework 5 Programme of the European Community, affords the opportunity of comparing the heritability of risk factors in different European Twin Registries. As an illustration we present the heritabilities of systolic and diastolic blood pressure, based on data from over 4000 twin pairs from six different European countries and Australia. Heritabilities for systolic blood pressure are between 52 and 66% and for diastolic blood pressure between 44 and 66%. There is no evidence of sex differences in heritability estimates and very little to no evidence for a significant contribution of shared family environment. A non-twin based prospective case/cohort study of coronary heart disease and stroke (MORGAM) will allow hypotheses relating to cardiovascular disease, generated in the twin cohorts, to be tested prospectively in adult populations. Twin studies have also contributed to our understanding of the life course hypothesis, and GenomEUtwin has the potential to add to this.
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