Dr. Gerald S. Berenson, creator of the famous Bogalusa Heart Study and Boyd professor of cardiology at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine, died Thursday while visiting family in Houston. He was 96. 

Berenson was an internationally known physician-scientist whose work helped shaped doctors' understanding of the causes of heart disease. 

A native of Bogalusa, he led the Bogalusa Heart Study, one of the most significant studies of the development of heart disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

“Dr. Gerald Berenson had an enormous and lasting impact on health," said Dr. Larry Hollier, chancellor of LSU Health New Orleans. “His pioneering Bogalusa Heart Study provided new information about how risk factors in children evolve as they age and the pathogenesis of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases."

One of the principal findings of the Bogalusa study is that the major causes of adult heart diseases begin in childhood. These include atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease, hypertension, type II diabetes and obesity. 

"What he learned from Bogalusa schoolchildren influenced the well-being of people the world over," Hollier said. 

“Dr. Berenson’s natural curiosity and unending desire to improve health rather than simply treat disease was the key to the beginning of the Bogalusa Heart Study in 1972,” said Dr. Frank Smart, LSU Health New Orleans chief of cardiology and a Berenson protégé.

“The Bogalusa Heart Study looked at over 16,000 people from Bogalusa and followed them from birth into adulthood. The impact of the study cannot be overstated. The study was landmark research because it established a link between diet, exercise and genetics and the development of coronary heart disease. This internationally acclaimed research project is the foundation for diet and lifestyle interventions that are commonly employed today.”

Berenson graduated from the Tulane University School of Medicine in 1945 and then served as a Navy doctor. He joined the faculty of the LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans in 1954 and remained there for 38 years.

During his time at the school, he became a professor, chief of cardiology and director of the first National Heart Lung Blood Institute National Research and Demonstration Center-Arteriosclerosis. 

Berenson rejoined the LSU Health New Orleans faculty in 2015. His goal was to continue research and to facilitate the development of a Center for Healthy Aging and Longevity.

He received a total of $55 million in research funding and authored more than 1,000 peer-reviewed publications. 

His research earned him many leadership positions and awards. He served in the leadership of the American Heart Association, Southern Society for Clinical Investigation, Louisiana Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, Association of University Cardiologists, American College of Physicians and American Society of Geriatric Cardiology.

His awards included the Spirit of Charity Award, the American Heart Association Population Research Prize and the American Heart Association Distinguished Scientist Award, as well as awards for community service, philanthropy and humanitarian initiatives.

Berenson was featured in a multipart HBO documentary on obesity entitled “The Weight of the Nation,” which includes a substantial segment on the Bogalusa Heart Study.

Among his other interests, he bred cattle. He received the “Breeder of the Year” Award from Beefmaster Breeders United at the organization's annual meeting in San Antonio.

Survivors include his wife, Joan Seidenbach Berenson; four children, Leslie, Ann, Robert and Laurie; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Services will be held Sunday at Congregation Shir Chadash, 3737 W. Esplanade Ave., Metairie. Visitation will begin at noon, followed by a service at 1 p.m. Burial will be private.