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When Ontario researchers announced that they were embarking on one of the world's most ambitious research studies, the goal of recruiting hundreds of thousands of residents and following them throughout their entire lives seemed nearly impossible to achieve. Now, two years later, they are well on their way.

More than 225,000 Ontario residents, or 2.4 per cent of the province's population, have signed up to participate in the Ontario Health Study. It is a massive research effort that hopes to gain a better understanding of the environmental, lifestyle and other factors that cause disease in order to develop better prevention and treatment strategies.

"No study in history has collected this much data on this many people this quickly," said Lyle Palmer, executive scientific director of the Ontario Health Study. "It's succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."

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Participants are required to answer a comprehensive questionnaire on everything from their medical history to where they live to their eating and lifestyle habits.

But a new phase in the study is now beginning that will involve taking blood and doing a physical assessment. Select participants will be asked to go to a lab, where they will provide a blood sample as well as have their grip strength, blood pressure and heart and lung function measured. Collecting blood is an important part of the project because it will give researchers information about hormones, nutrients, vitamins and chemicals and how those may play a role in disease risk.

In addition, all the participants will be asked to answer questions about their mental health.

Palmer said the study's participants closely mirror Ontario's population, including a diversity of ethnic backgrounds and a fairly even split among men and women. The study also has an overrepresentation of aboriginal people, which is notable because they often face a higher risk for many chronic illnesses and other health problems. Many previous studies failed to focus on aboriginal groups, so the study will help to provide a unique, much-needed window into that population, Palmer said.

The Ontario Health Study is part of the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project, a research study that is taking place in five regions across the country simultaneously. The goal is to identify the underpinnings of cancer and chronic disease.

The provincial study and the national study are distinct, but will overlap. Participants in the Ontario Health Study who are 35 to 69 years old will be included in the national study. But Palmer noted that researchers will be able to use data from the Ontario study to do separate research on individuals of all ages.

Ontario recruitment is continuing and Palmer hopes to have a sample that represents 10 per cent of the province.

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