Women’s Health Research at Yale Director Carolyn M. Mazure, Ph.D., championed the importance of grassroots efforts Tuesday to accelerate the change of medical research and practice for the benefit of women.
Speaking at the American Heart Association’s “Go Red for Women” event at The New Haven Lawn Club, Mazure explained how women were historically not included in clinical trials. She discussed how through efforts begun primarily in the 1990s by the National Institutes of Health and work by her center and others, researchers have begun to fill the gap in knowledge about women and sex and gender differences in health.
“One of the things I’m here to do tonight is tell you that change has happened,” Mazure said, crediting the AHA’s work in partnership with clinicians and researchers. Change is here. And more is coming.”
For decades, women weren’t typically studied in part because of concerns about exposing women of reproductive ages to experimental risk. In addition, women’s hormonal cycles added complexity to scientific design. And researchers believed that women were either less affected by diseases and conditions being studied in men or that study results would be the same between women and men.
Women, however, are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases and disability, have acute and chronic pain, die following a heart attack, develop depression and anxiety, acquire autoimmune diseases, develop Alzheimer’s disease, and more rapidly escalate from use to a substance or gambling addiction.
Dr. Mazure discussed a recent study in Rhode Island finding that women who died of an opioid overdose were three times less likely to have received a dose of the life-saving medication naloxone from emergency responders.
But thanks to grassroots efforts that led to a federal law passed in 1993, the National Institutes of Health — the world’s single largest funder of biomedical research — began requiring applicants for grants to include women in their studies and to analyze results by sex and gender. And now the NIH requires basic laboratory research to include female cells, tissues, and animals. This is important because such studies form the necessary building blocks for human investigations.
“It’s really important to continue to build on your efforts,” Mazure said to the assembled crowd of about 200 people. “To raise awareness. We have to know about the conditions suffered by women in order to be more effective in treating and preventing them.”
Mazure founded Women’s Health Research at Yale in 1998, sparking innovative new research to study women and sex and gender differences, communicating findings to medical professionals and the public, forming interdisciplinary partnerships to tackle real-world health questions affecting women in their daily lives, training the next generation of medical researchers and practitioners to understand how sex and gender influence health outcomes, and asserting a national voice to help shape public health policy that benefits everyone.
Mazure highlighted three recent projects conducted by WHRY researchers, including one by “Go Red for Women” speaker Dr. Erica Spatz, who developed an improved classification system to describe and group heart attacks accounting for the different ways they can develop and present in women.
“As we study women, our data really do show us that sex and gender differences matter,” Mazure said. “It’s time to stop treating women as a sub-population. We are not. We are half of the population.”
Mazure expressed confidence that the future, shaped by like-minded partners such as WHRY and the AHA, will embrace individuality for the benefit of everyone.
“Diversity is good,” she said. “Inclusion is good. Variation is good. Opportunities for improved outcomes exist by understanding and then translating difference.”
However, Mazure said, making that future a reality will require a sustained call to action.
“We need to advance what we’re doing,” she said. “And we need most of all to partner in these grassroots efforts — with clinicians, the general public, researchers, and scientists — to make change. And I believe we can do it.”