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Nursing women to health

From the Pill to heart disease, The Nurse's Health Study has been a critical source on women's health for nearly 30 years.

Tylenol and certain other pain relievers can elevate blood pressure; Coffee does not increase the risk for colon cancer; An alcoholic drink a day can help preserve memory: These are just a few of the conclusions in the past few months from the Nurse's Health Study — the nation's most critical source of information about women's health for the almost 30 years.

"The nurses health study is truly a treasure trove in terms of understanding ways to prevent chronic disease in women," says Dr. JoAnn Manson of the Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Dr. Frank Speizer started the effort at the Harvard School of Public Health — with a grant to learn possible dangers of birth control pills. That was in 1976. The project recruited more than 120,000 female nurses then aged 30 to 55. Nurse Diane Gollrad and the others were asked to respond to a detailed questionnaire every two years.

"I said, 'Oh, sure. Let's do this. It looks like it might be fun. And if it can help, that's fine.'  So it started then.  And it's never stopped," says Gollrad.

The project quickly got its answers about the Pill, but it became clear the nurses could contribute much more.

According to Dr. Sue Hankinson of the Harvard School of Public Health, the study is a success, in large part because of the participants themselves. "They've been fabulous in terms of sticking with us over time," she says. "We have very high participation rates. They're very good at answering questions."

Since 1976, the project has proved that smoking causes heart disease in women, discovered which fats are healthy, which vitamin supplements are useful, and answered hundreds of other questions — big and small.

As the nurses, like Diane Gollrad, move into new phases of life, the Nurse's Health study is asking new questions to find the best strategies for healthy aging.