Largest-Ever Women's Health Study Heads Into Final Year of Recruitment

March 21, 1997

Ten years of low-fat eating?

For anyone who has struggled with the lure of a bratwurst in July, that's a tall order. But it's exactly the regimen one group of women is testing as part of the Women's Health Initiative (WHI), the largest U.S. clinical study ever conducted on women's health.

As the study -- which includes the UW Medical School as one of 40 research sites across the nation -- heads into its final year of recruitment, the Madison research team is reminding eligible women that this is the last opportunity to take part in the WHI's comprehensive study of heart disease, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's disease, breast and colon cancer among women.

"We have had extraordinary success recruiting women from all over the state for this study," says Catherine Allen, associate scientist at the school and a co-investigator for the study. "Our goal is 3,600 women, and we are now at just over 2,200 enrolled. But this is the home stretch; we have twelve months left to recruit enough volunteers to make sure this study is a success."

Ruth Jensen is one of those volunteers. A UW-Madison doctoral candidate in adult education, Jensen was one of the first women to join the WHI in Madison and chose to be included in the "dietary intervention" part of the study, designed to test the role of low-fat eating in prevention of breast cancer. She was randomly assigned to the dietary change group, in which women eat a diet no higher than 20 percent fat for the duration of the study. For Jensen, that means a total of 10 years.

"I doubt I'll be changing back after 10 years!" she says with a laugh. "This is a whole new way of eating for me, but there has been a lot of support from the nutritionist and the other women in the group. I like the idea behind the study -- it's a way to give something back."

The Women's Health Initiative includes several clinical trials and an observational study. In addition to the dietary change groups, the study is assessing the role of hormone replacement therapy in the prevention of heart disease and Alzheimer's disease, and whether calcium and vitamin D supplements help avert bone fractures.

The national enrollment goal is 160,000 women representing diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds; to date, about 95,000 women have joined the study.

Since Gov. Tommy Thompson announced plans in the 1997 State of the State address for a "women's health initiative" focusing on providing health care services, the WHI Madison site has received several calls from women confused by the two programs of the same name. Allen emphasizes that the UW-Madison program, which began in 1995, is a federally funded research study open to any woman who meets the study criteria. Researchers are seeking post-menopausal women age 55 to 79 and who plan to remain in their current community for at least three years.

For more information about the Women's Health Initiative, call the center at 263-3237. For those outside Dane County, the toll-free number is 1-800-944-9472.