Northwestern University and the American Lung Association are leading a first-of-its-kind study that aims to enlist 4,000 millennials across the country to better understand why some people develop lung problems.
Northwestern and the American Lung Association are working with other institutions nationwide on the study, which will observe the lung health of millennials — in this case, people ages 25 to 35 — over the course of years.
Other studies have looked at cardiovascular health over time, and at the health of baby boomers, but this study will focus on lung health among U.S. millennials, said principal study investigator Dr. Ravi Kalhan, a professor of medicine and preventive medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
“This study, we really believe, is a landmark study when we think about respiratory health in the United States,” Kalhan said at a news conference Wednesday. “It turns out we’ve never done a study in the U.S. that actually examines people across their lifetime to understand who develops chronic lung disease and who doesn’t.”
The idea is to start examining people when they’re young adults, at the peak of their lung health, he said. Study participants will undergo tests, such as CT scans and breathing into a spirometer, to help assess their lung function, as well as give blood and urine samples and answer questions about their environments, lifestyles and activities.
The study is funded with a $26 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute for an initial five years, but Kalhan is optimistic the study will get additional funding to continue following people much longer.
So far, the study has enrolled about 140 participants across the country, he said.
One of those participants is Lindy Olive, a 28-year-old Northwestern research coordinator. Olive grew up in rural Alabama, and in 2019 she worked at a factory where she was exposed to vinyl tile dust, and she developed a cough and chest pain. Then in 2021, she got COVID-19 and felt ill for about two weeks.
“I couldn’t even get up the stairs, really, without holding on to a wall and being like, ‘What in the world is going on?’” Olive said. “That was really a wake-up call to look at all these things that have happened over your life and all these places you’ve lived and how that’s impacted your own lung health.”
The study might help shed light on possible long-term respiratory consequences for people who get COVID-19, Kalhan said.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is probably the most influential exposure of our lifetime in terms of respiratory health,” Kalhan said. “We don’t really know what the influence of that viral infection is going to be on someone’s lung health throughout their life.”
Researchers also want to learn more about the effects of climate change, pollution and vaping on long-term lung health, said Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association.
“Lung disease is one of the leading causes of death here in the United States, and with the COVID pandemic it has certainly increased the urgency and need for us to really learn and understand more about the lungs,” Wimmer said.
People wishing to take part in the study can go to www.lung.org/research/lung-health-cohort-study to learn more.