By Rita Beamish
There was a time when menopausal hormone therapy was seen as a near-panacea for the ills of the aging woman. That was before Marcia Stefanick and her Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) colleagues put the theory to the test and upended the medical world.
Now Stefanick is on a different quest, but this time she’s not expecting to disprove a widely-held myth as she did with the assumed benefits of hormone therapy in the WHI. Instead, she hopes to provide scientific underpinning to something widely believed – that exercise prolongs life and in particular sustains cardiovascular health.
“Why do some women do so well, while others age less successfully?” the professor of medicine and leader of women’s health and sex differences research at Stanford asks. “The aging of the cardiovascular system is the main question.”
Stefanick has always been interested in questions of “successful aging,” along with her work on heart health and sex hormones. The daughter of a Pennsylvania veterinarian, Stefanick grew up with four brothers and two sisters “in a sexist era where girls do this and boys do that.” She developed an intrinsic interest in the differences between the sexes. After more than two decades conducting a series of hormone studies, including the blockbuster National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded WHI, she is looking more broadly at aging. She continues work on non-hormone – and less publicized — aspects of the WHI, which started with nearly 162,000 women subjects aged 50-79 in 1993. In these studies, Stefanick is looking at the aging characteristics of women, including physical and mental function, plus cardiovascular health, cancer and osteoporosis.
Stefanick seeks to know what, regardless of hormone use, predicts successful aging. Her search to date has involved diet, quality of life, stress measures, and sleep patterns in WHI women, now aged 65 to 95, and also 6,000 men, aged 75 and older, who are enrolled in the so-called MrOS study of osteoporotic fractures. Delving deeper into the body’s response to aging, Stefanick’s team now is looking also at loss of skeletal muscle and changes in body fat.