Thursday, April 26, 2007

Nuns Continue Calcium Study

I know this was supposed to be a sweet story about a bunch of grandmotherly-type ladies who have been contributing to scientific knowledge for decades, but I couldn't help thinking how it exemplified the sort of gender blindness that plagues biomedical research.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.

What are the top three symptoms of a heart attack--do you know?

[Takes responses from the audience]

Yes, that's right. Chest pains, tingling arms, and shortness of breath.

Actually, that's also wrong. Those are the top three signs in men. In women, it's totally different. Bet you didn't know that, did you?

Bet you also didn't know that most pharmaceuticals are not tested on women of childbearing age--men and post-menopausal women (if women are included at all) form the research pool for most drugs. Between a woman's monthly hormonal fluctuations and the possibility that she might be/become pregnant during the study, she is considered a completely undesirable subject for research.

Even if the drug in question is likely to be prescribed to women of childbearing age.

Isn't that interesting?

Anyway, back to the nuns. According to the article, this study has been the source of the government's recommendations for calcium intake for women for decades. The study population is comprised exclusively of nuns--a very convenient study population, the researchers noted with glee, because of their lack of family commitments. (Women with families tend to be too busy for such an involved longitudinal study.)

Hmmm . . . does that make you think anything? Lack of family commitments, lack of family commitments . . . hmmm . . . Gosh! These seem to be women who don't have children!

So, "scientific" recommendations about women's calcium intake are primarily based on a study whose research population is comprised exclusively of women whose bodies have never done what over 80% of women's bodies will do some time in their life.

Anybody see a problem here?

It's the same problem as the pharmaceutical studies, really. The normally-functioning female body is seen as an impediment to proper research, so it is ignored during the period of research. Presumably, if they think of it at all, scientists are assuming that pregnancy is something that is "added on" to a "normal" female body. So, if we know what "normal" women need, then we can just slap on some extra pregnancy recommendations onto that.

There seems to be no understanding whatsoever that pregnancy and childbearing (much less childrearing) might change a woman's body such that her needs are completely different from these darling nuns' needs. That pregnancy and childbearing are not conditions superadded onto a "normal" body--they are constitutive of "normal" for the vast majority of women.

You'll forgive me, then, if I don't ask "How high?" every time the "latest nutritutional study" says "Jump!"

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