Influential women U.S. senators urge support for continued current funding of pioneering Women’s Health Initiative

Letter to NIH Director highlights ongoing value of largest study on aging in women
Garnet Anderson
Dr. Garnet Anderson, of Public Health Sciences, is the director of the WHI Clinical Coordinating Center, which is based at Fred Hutch. Photo by Stefanie Felix

WASHINGTON — Aug. 9, 2013 — An influential group of women U.S. senators are urging the National Institutes of Health to continue current funding levels for the pioneering Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), the largest study of middle-aged and older women in the nation.

“The well-established WHI infrastructure provides a cost-effective, highly credible resource for continuing substantial research on women’s health, aging, chronic disease prevention, and early detection,” the senators said in a letter signed by 11 senators and addressed to Dr. Francis Collins, overall director of the National Institutes of Health, and Dr. Gary Gibbons, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, home institute to the WHI.

Led by the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, and the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Patty Murray of Washington, the senators who signed the letter include Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

“More WHI discoveries are on the horizon for women across the country,” the senators said in the letter. “We look forward to the continuation of this worthwhile program, and the national health and economic benefits it brings.”

WHI recruited more than 160,000 post-menopausal women at 40 U.S. research institutions in the mid-1990s to expand medical understanding and improve health care for women through the study of hormone therapy, diet and nutritional supplement use. WHI discoveries have contributed to better post-menopausal health outcomes, including the first national reduction in breast cancer diagnosis and associated medical costs.

Four of the principal researchers who have been involved in WHI from the beginning urge continued funding of the cost-effective clinical research program that addresses significant holes in our knowledge about the health and well-being of women 50 years of age and older, especially with new discoveries on the horizon.

“WHI has changed clinical practice, improved health, and reduced health care costs,” said Dr. Garnet Anderson, senior vice president and director of the Public Health Sciences Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, home of the WHI Clinical Coordinating Center. “As a WHI investigator, I am overwhelmed by the commitment of our participants, the dedication of colleagues, and the support that leaders and advocates have given us. Our primary objective at this stage should be to sustain this investment and continue to learn as much as we can from these women.”

“As a scientist involved in WHI since its inception, I am especially grateful to the women who originally enrolled in WHI and those who remain active participants in this landmark study,” said Dr. Sally A. Shumaker, professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Health Policy within the Division of Public Health Sciences and professor of internal medicine at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “WHI holds the promise of significantly advancing our knowledge of the causes and consequences of diseases and their treatments and learning what factors contribute to women remaining active and independent for the rest of their lives.”

“I know of no other research program that has had as much benefit for the health of post-menopausal women; it has impacted clinical care and saved health care dollars,” said Dr. Barbara Howard, senior scientist and former president of MedStar Health Research Institute in Hyattsville, Maryland. Dr. Howard is also a WHI researcher.

“The WHI clinical trials have led to a sea change in clinical practice and improved health care for women around the globe,” said Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Manson has been the principal investigator at the Boston site of WHI since the study’s inception. “The WHI participants joined the study to help get answers for future generations of women and they remain committed to this goal. WHI provides vital opportunities to test promising interventions to promote healthy aging in women and reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, osteoporotic fractures, diabetes, memory loss, and other health problems.”

The Senate letter echoes this consensus on the established value and future promise of WHI for providing improved and cost-effective health care for women of all ages.

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About the Women’s Health Initiative

The Women's Health Initiative (WHI) is a long-term national health study that has focused on strategies for preventing heart disease, breast and colorectal cancer, and osteoporotic fractures in postmenopausal women. These chronic diseases are the major causes of death, disability, and frailty in older women of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds. This multi-million dollar, 20-year project, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), involves 161,808 women aged 50-79, and is one of the most definitive, far-reaching clinical trials of post-menopausal women's health ever undertaken in the United States. The WHI Clinical Trial and Observational Study focused on many of the inequities in women's health research and will continue to provide practical information to women and their physicians about hormone therapy, dietary patterns, calcium/vitamin D supplementation, and their effects on the prevention of heart disease, cancer and osteoporotic fractures.

Roger Nyhus
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