Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of stories explaining how the scientific research underway in the Cardiovascular Genome-Phenome Study can save and improve lives.

Whether it’s a sore throat, a scratch from your pet or a raging case of sinusitis, most wounds and infections would not heal without inflammation — the biological process that triggers and regulates healing after an injury. But too much of a good thing can be harmful.

Susan Cheng, M.D., an associate physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, said some people have too much chronic inflammation in their blood vessels. This can cause injury to the blood vessel lining and lead to the buildup of plaque inside the arteries, also known as atherosclerosis. Chronic inflammation can also lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Cheng was recently awarded $500,000 as part of the American Heart Association’s Cardiovascular Genome-Phenome Study. CVGPS researchers use massive volumes of data from major studies to speed the discovery of personalized treatments and prevention for cardiovascular diseases and stroke — the world’s leading causes of death.

Cheng talked recently with AHA News about her research.

Your project looks at chronic inflammation, cardiovascular aging and longevity. How are those three things related? “Researchers have long theorized that the progressive increase with age in chronic inflammation throughout the body is one of the major reasons older people are more susceptible than younger people to developing cardiovascular diseases and other diseases that limit lifespan.

We’re studying the types of biological molecules that are involved when inflammation first starts, especially the ones that may be central in distinguishing which individuals go on to develop chronic inflammation and disease. We’re particularly interested in understanding why certain individuals have the chance to avoid developing chronic inflammation altogether and go on to live a long and healthy life, free of cardiovascular diseases.

The first step involves taking samples of previously collected and stored blood specimens from Framingham Heart Study and Jackson Heart Study participants. (The Framingham study tracked cardiovascular diseases across three generations of New Englanders starting in 1948, and the Jackson study looked for links between heart disease and race in African-Americans from Mississippi.) This will be an extraordinary team effort involving the contributions of scientists from four academic research institutions across the country.”

What does chronic inflammation do to the body? “Chronic inflammation is the persistent activity of a cascade of specific molecular signaling and interactions. Think of it as a kind of continuous and complex domino effect. Our goal is to figure out which dominos are the most important ones for starting or perpetuating the chain reaction of chronic inflammation.

We want to target these dominos for interventions aimed at reducing chronic inflammation and promoting health and longevity. At the same time, we want to leave intact those dominos that are important for maintaining the normal healing process.”

What could your team’s findings mean for heart health down the road? “We have long been interested in studying biological aging from both ends of the spectrum. At one end, there are processes that contribute to accelerated aging and premature disease and death. At the other end, there are processes that promote healthy aging and allow individuals to avoid or escape common chronic conditions such as cardiovascular diseases and, in turn, live longer.

You might guess that the factors that keep us healthy should be the opposite of the factors that make us sick. But we have data to suggest that this is not exactly the case. Recently, our laboratory discovered some novel markers of cardiovascular health that are not exactly the converse of markers of disease, and we made this discovery by looking closely at the people in the community who have aged well. By doing these kinds of studies, we are working to better understand what it really means to achieve healthy cardiovascular aging and what factors help get you there.

One day we want to be in a position where we are able to give more concrete advice to patients about how to achieve and maintain cardiovascular health over a lifetime.

Read about the other studies in this series.