Dr. Heaney shares what he learned from his groundbreaking, bone health study.
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We started the so-called Omaha Nuns Study in 1967. We did that because I had been working then on the evaluation of bone metabolism and the handling of calcium in patients who already had osteoporosis and then I realized that I was getting a hold of the wrong end of the stick basically. What I really wanted to do is to look at people who had yet developed osteoporosis to see if I could figure out what was going wrong that then years later would result in the problems of osteoporosis. And I recruited four religious orders of nuns to help me with this for several reasons. One, if they make a commitment they are likely to be able to stick with it for a while, not just because they are motivated, but because they don’t have the other life pressures such as a husband moving to another part of the country or children that would preclude your coming in for the kinds of studies we have etc. So they were a natural population and they had been used by other medical researchers, very, very good group of individuals to work with. And fundamentally, what our work did over the ensuing 20 or 30 years was to write the book about calcium metabolism in the midlife woman. We simply did not have quantitative measurements about how she was absorbing, how she was excreting, how much she had to have in order to optimize those functions, what she needed in order to protect her bone mass, what the role of calcium was. We didn’t focus on vitamin D until many years later when it became clear that there was a lot of variability in calcium absorption and some of it, turns out, was due to the fact that many of these women did not have adequate vitamin D status. So we kind of learned by doing and as we acquired information, it caused us to ask different questions and we tried to answer those questions and one thing led to another.