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Fall/Winter 2010 Vol. 10 Number 3

Table of Contents

©Stephanie Carter/


A Progress Report on Women's Health Research

Just 25 years ago, one would have been hard-pressed to find clinical trials for colon cancer or a new diabetes drug in which women participated as study volunteers. In fact, until the mid-1980s, most clinical research was conducted with men because of the potential risks to fetuses of testing drugs and other materials on women of childbearing age. Women also undergo more frequent hormonal fluctuations than men, which can complicate a study. The conventional thinking ran that results of studies on males could easily be applied to females.

As the lag in the use of new therapies such as beta blockers and stents to treat heart disease in female patients has shown, results were not being readily extrapolated to women. In addition, fewer women in studies also meant less research on health issues more prevalent in or unique to women.

A federal report in 1985 brought this inequity in clinical research to light and galvanized an effort to enroll women and boost research on women's health problems. How much progress has this initiative achieved in decreasing the burden of disease and number of deaths during the past two decades?

Quite a bit in some areas, says a new report from the Institute of Medicine. The greatest gains have been made in the fights against heart disease, breast cancer, and cervical cancer, and less --though still significant -- progress in reducing the effects of depression, HIV/AIDS, and osteoporosis on women. These achievements reflect the impact of federal requirements for studies to include women, an influx of resources, and multifaceted approaches that tackled the conditions from several fronts for a fuller understanding of each condition, the report concludes.

But when it comes to lessening the burden associated with several other health outcomes --including lung cancer, autoimmune diseases, unintended pregnancies, and dementia -- research to date has produced little or no advances. Conditions that profoundly affect women's quality of life, such as rheumatoid arthritis and addiction, have generally seen less progress than major killers like breast cancer. The report urges researchers to give equal weight to improving quality of life as to reducing death rates when making decisions about where to direct resources. And they need to take into account both biologically determined sex differences and socially determined gender differences as a routine part of conducting research. The report also points out that even where there has been major progress, it has not extended to all groups of women. Efforts should be made to overcome these disparities. --  Christine Stencel

Women's Health Research: Progress, Pitfalls, and Promise. Committee on Women's Health Research, Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice, Institute of Medicine (2010, 420 pp.; ISBN 0-309-15389-1; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $66.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Nancy E. Adler, professor of medical psychology and director of the Center for Health and Community, University of California, San Francisco. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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Copyright 2010 by the National Academy of Sciences