Just over 40 years ago, the National Institutes of Health began funding the largest research initiative on women’s health in history. The Nurses’ Health Study began in 1976 and is still going strong, thanks to the efforts of dozens of clinicians, epidemiologists, and statisticians—and, of course, the participating nurses, past and present.
Researchers first came up with the idea to recruit nurses for a women’s health study because these frontline caregivers are so knowledgeable about health and wellness topics. They’re seen as more capable of providing complete and accurate information than the general public (the questionnaires used to track the nurses’ health are quite technical). The first cohort of nurses recruited in 1976 were between the ages of 30 and 55 at the time. The primary research focus then was to look at long-term consequences of oral contraceptives, but data was also collected on smoking habits, cancer, and heart disease. The original 121,700 were all married (due to the stigma associated with premarital sex and contraceptives back then) and came from just 11 states. They filled out a detailed questionnaire every two years and were each assigned an ID number to ensure privacy. Over time, the surveys were expanded to include questions about diabetes and over 30 other chronic diseases, as well as exercise and a wide variety of other lifestyle factors. Diet and nutrition were added in 1980, and researchers began taking blood and urine samples around that time as well.
In 1989, a second cohort of nurses was recruited for the Nurses’ Health Study II. It included younger women, between 25 and 42 years old, in order to study the effects of oral contraceptives on women who began using them at adolescence and were likely to have more years of exposure to hormones. Starting in 2001, participants began supplying DNA samples from a cheek swab, in order to look for relationships between various genetic markers and disease risk. When a participant’s death was reported, researchers followed up by obtaining copies of the death certificate and autopsy report (when it was available).
Women all over the world owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to the nurses who have been so dedicated to provide high-quality health information over four decades. The data generated have resulted in hundreds of peer-reviewed papers being published.
In 2010, the Nurses’ Health Study III was launched. It is the first of the studies to be entirely web-based and to include different types of healthcare professionals of both genders. The research focus is on how diet, lifestyle, environment, and occupational exposures affect long term health in both men and women. The study is also looking at fertility issues, breast cancer risk, and hormone replacement therapies.
This third generation study is still enrolling participants (you can sign up here). The goal is to recruit 100,000 RNs and LPNs between the ages of 20 and 46. Your participation just might help with the next medical breakthrough in women’s health! It is yet another way to be an advocate for public health.
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