WASHINGTON -- The federal government said yesterday that it plans to conduct the most sweeping study of women's health problems ever attempted, with hundreds of thousands of women participating in a research effort expected to cost $500 million over 10 years.
The project is the brainchild of the new director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Bernadine Healy, who said that it would be "the most definitive, far-reaching study of women's health ever undertaken in the United States, if not the world."
The study intends to examine the major causes of illness and death in women, including cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis, a condition characterized by deterioration of the bones, and the impact of several preventive and therapeutic approaches.
Dr. Healy, who announced the study at a hearing of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Subcommittee on Aging, said that recent years have brought "an important awakening to a simple fact, namely, women have unique medical problems that need greater attention."
"Women have a right to know how they can prevent and ameliorate the health problems attendant to growing older," she added. The new study "will go far toward providing these answers."
The National Institutes of Health, considered the world's premier biomedical research facility, has come under fire in recent years for its failure to include more women in federally funded medical research. During the past year, the agency has made an increased effort to ensure that women are better represented in research. The study announced yesterday "is in the spirit" of that response,
one NIH official said.
"The good news is that women live longer; the bad news is that their quality of life, from a medical and behavioral perspective, is not what it could be," Dr. Healy said during a subcommittee hearing that focused on the health of older women and the effects of menopause.
An estimated 35 million women -- about one-third of the female population in the United States -- have gone through menopause. For every 2,000 menopausal women, 20 will develop cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death among women; 11 will develop osteoporosis; six will be diagnosed with breast cancer; and three will develop endometrial cancer, according to data presented at the hearing.
The NIH said in a statement that the study would examine the effects of menopause and the accompanying loss of ovarian hormones on these diseases and whether diet modification, exercise, hormone replacement therapy and smoking cessation could reduce their toll.
"Such regimens, however, may not be reinforcing, and may even work at cross-purposes to one another," the agency said.
The NIH said that the study would address each of those approaches individually as well as their effects in combination.
The study is expected to track the health of hundreds of thousands of women and will include several components, among them a large prospective surveillance program, a nationwide community prevention and intervention study and random clinical trials examining preventive and therapeutic strategies.
Detailed plans for the study are to be prepared over the next six to nine months.