The Black Women's Health Study
- Created on May 5th, 2007
Black women in the United States have a greater burden of illness than white women. For example, black women are more likely to die of cancer, heart disease, and stroke, and they more often develop hypertension, diabetes, uterine fibroids, and lupus. To eliminate these differences, the causes must be understood. To that end, investigators at Boston University and Howard University Cancer Center have been conducting a study of the health of African American women from across the United States, the Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS). The largest study of U.S. black women’s health yet conducted, the BWHS began in 1995 when 59,000 black women completed health questionnaires. Invitations to participate in the study had been mailed to subscribers to Essence magazine, friends and relatives of early respondents, and members of the Black Nurses’ Association and the National Education Associations. The study design involves following this group of women over time to learn who remains healthy, who develops illness, and what factors are related to the development of the various illnesses. Since 1995, participants have completed questionnaires every two years to update information on their health. Some participants have also provided mouthwash samples, which are a source of DNA that can be used to study the genetic basis of health and disease. The main support for the study comes from the National Cancer Institute and several other institutes of the National Institutes of Health.
Among the findings that have emerged from the study are the following:
- Exercise is associated with a lower risk of breast cancer.
- Exercise is associated with fewer symptoms of depression.
- Exercise is associated with a reduced occurrence of polyps in the colon and rectum (some polyps are precursors to colon cancer).
These findings suggest that black women can improve their health by participating in physical activity:
Women who use postmenopausal female hormone supplements have a higher occurrence of breast cancer than women who do not use them. The risk increases as the duration of use increases. Because of findings such as this, current recommendations are that women who use female hormones for the relief of severe menopausal symptoms should do so for as short a time as possible.
Women who live in less advantaged neighborhoods have a higher occurrence of hypertension than women who live in wealthier neighborhoods, regardless of their personal characteristics, such as weight and physical activity.
The implication of this finding is that eliminating health disparities will require an understanding of how the circumstances in which people live affect their health.
Among the conditions that the BWHS is studying are breast cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, uterine fibroids, lupus, and preterm birth. The investigators are studying a wide range of factors that could affect health, such as weight, physical activity, diet, reproductive history, neighborhood, family history of illness, experiences of discrimination, stress and coping, and genes. Important issues under consideration are:
- the influence of diet on the risk of breast cancer, diabetes, and other illnesses
- the influence of physical activity, or lack of it, on the risk of diabetes
- the influence of genes on the risk of lupus
- the influence of experiences of racism on the risk of breast cancer and other illnesses
The hope and expectation is that results from the BWHS and other studies of black women will lead to improvements in their health and reductions in health disparities. To learn more about the BWHS, the results that have emerged to date, and the results that will emerge from the study, visit the BWHS website. The website also includes links to other sources of health information.