The Nurses’ Health Study

Dr. Frank Speizer, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, took on the challenge of investigating potential long-term consequences of oral contraceptives. However, the Nurses’ Health Study became much more than that.

Dr. Speizer used nurses as the study population because of their knowledge about health and their ability to provide complete and accurate information regarding various diseases due to their nursing education. Nurses are also relatively easy to follow over time and motivated to participate in a long-term study. Participants were limited to married women due to the sensitivity of questions about contraceptive use at the time. The original population of the study was 121,700 registered women nurses between the ages of 30-55.

While the original focus of the study was on contraceptive methods, it has expanded over time to include research on other lifestyle factors, behaviors, personal characteristics, and diseases. Every two years, participants receive a follow-up questionnaire with questions about diseases and health-related topics, including smoking, hormone use, and menopausal status. A food frequency questionnaire was added in 1980 and is now mailed out every four years. A quality-of-life questionnaire was added in 1992.

In 1989, Dr. Walter Willett and colleagues started the Nurses’ Health Study II. This was created because the younger generation of nurses started using oral contraceptives during their adolescence and therefore exposed during their early reproductive life. Case studies had suggested that such young exposure might be associated with increases in breast cancer risk. NHS II also gathered information on physical activity and diet in early adult life.

In 2010, Dr. Jorge Chavarro and colleagues launched the Nurses’ Health Study 3. It is entirely web-based and includes different types of health workers, as well as men and women. NHS 3 attempts to include nurses from more diverse ethnic backgrounds. This study examines how dietary patterns, lifestyle, environment, and nursing occupational exposures impact men’s and women’s health.

This study has made many contributions to our understanding of health. Not only have they validated questionnaires relating to health habits, but the biospecimens (e.g., blood, urine, toenails) collected from participants have allowed for research into disease mechanisms. The pictures below show just a few of the key research findings from the Nurses’ Health Study.


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