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Fall 2006

Women Consider How to Interpret Health Study Results

As results emerge from one of the largest women's health studies ever undertaken, women are trying to sort out how to apply the findings to their own lives.

With more than 160,000 participants, the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) tracked postmenopausal women for seven to 12 years looking at, among other things, the value of menopausal hormone therapy, a low-fat diet, and calcium and vitamin D supplements. UCLA participated in the study under the direction of Howard Judd, M.D., now professor emeritus of obstetrics/gynecology.

Some of the still-emerging results have been stunning. In 2002 and 2004, the WHI abruptly halted its two hormone studies after concluding that the risks- including breast cancer and stroke-outweighed the possible benefits in preventing heart disease. Other conclusions have been less momentous. One finding suggests that a diet lower in total fat did not significantly reduce the incidence of breast cancer, heart disease or stroke, nor reduce the risk of colorectal cancer in healthy, postmenopausal women. As for calcium and vitamin D, WHI findings suggest that these supplements in healthy postmenopausal women provide modest benefits in preserving bone mass and preventing hip fractures in certain groups of women, but do not prevent other types of fractures or colorectal cancer.

Should women throw away their hormone therapy (as many abruptly did), eat all the fat they want, and chuck the calcium? Not so fast, experts say. Seeking guidance from a personal physician, who can interpret the findings and apply it to a woman's needs and risk factors, is the sensible road to take.

UCLA geriatrician Elizabeth Whiteman, M.D., notes, "We look at the data and really try to individualize the information for that specific woman-what are her risk factors and goals? "It's key for patients to talk to their doctor about any family history of dementia, stroke, colon cancer and heart disease."

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