5 Lessons From the Women’s Health Initiative

For most of the medical history, scientific research has largely been done on white men, which has made it difficult to know how to treat conditions that affect other populations, especially women.

Take menopause: For years, doctors have prescribed long-term use of the hormones estrogen and progestin to help women manage symptoms during and after menopause because they help women feel better. But in 1991, researchers wanted to know definitively whether the hormones used to relieve menopausal symptoms helped women more than they hurt them. So the National Institutes of Health launched the largest study ever focused exclusively on women to answer that question.

It’s called Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), the research project recruited 68,132 postmenopausal women to participate. They were divided into groups, some taking only estrogen, others taking estrogen and progestin, and still others taking a placebo. After more than a decade of observation, the researchers halted the trials early, in 2002 and 2004, because it was so clear that the hormones posed serious health risks to women.

But the researchers continued to follow up with these women in the years since, and also tested other health interventions on the group, including low-fat diets and vitamin D and calcium supplements. In 1998, a monitoring component of the Global Health Initiative was launched, with 93,676 other participants, to study more aspects of women’s health. Much of the data collected over the years is now available to other researchers as well.

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