In 1967, 168 Catholic nuns from the Omaha area met with Creighton University officials to serve a higher cause. Another 24 joined them ten years later. And, every five years, these women faithfully returned to Creighton’s St. Joseph Hospital (now Creighton University Medical Center) for eight days and nine nights.
But this was no spiritual journey. The women – representing six mother houses and all between the ages of 35 and 45 when they started – were participants in what would become known as the Omaha Nuns Study.
On Wednesday, April 25, 32 of the original study participants, along with many of the Creighton researchers, nurses and others involved gathered to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the study, which was pivotal to our modern-day knowledge about women’s bone health and osteoporosis.
The nuns laughed, shared memories and some even got milk mustaches, courtesy of the American Dairy Association/Dairy Council of Nebraska to highlight the important role calcium plays in osteoporosis prevention.
“The project, because of the number of participants and the length of the study, literally wrote the book on the operation of the calcium economy in mid-life women,” said Robert P. Heaney, M.D., John A. Creighton University Professor, who designed and directed the project.
It also established Creighton as an international leader in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of osteoporosis, noted Robert Recker, M.D., director of Creighton’s Osteoporosis Research Center.
For the study, the nuns would eat the same foods in exactly the same portions every day for eight days. The diets were designed to match, within 5 percent, their usual food intake in terms of calories, protein, calcium and phosphorus. Creighton researchers then meticulously gathered data to identify factors that influenced how the women’s bodies absorbed calcium, utilized it and excreted it.
The project enjoyed continuous federal funding from 1967 until 1995, and was one of the longest-running, continually supported projects in the history of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Recker noted. It provided the principal scientific basis for NIH recommendations for adult calcium intake.
Among the findings resulting from the Creighton research: Healthy adult women in midlife require 1,200 milligrams of calcium each day; and calcium absorption is influenced by such factors as body size, vitamin D, estrogen levels, age, race, calcium source and other nutrient interactions.
Although the eight-day inpatient studies ended in 1992, the women – now in their 70s and 80s – continue coming to Creighton for calcium absorption measurements and bone-density scans.
As for the next 40 years, The Catherine M. Recker and Matthew Pappajohn Endowed Osteoporosis Research Fund, has been established by Recker’s daughter and son-in law. Among other things, the endowment would support laboratory and clinical research, train future researchers and provide ongoing patient care and treatment for those with osteoporosis.
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