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Harvard Researchers Conduct Women’s Health Study with Apple

Dean of the Faculty of the School of Public Health Michelle Williams said the study will help people understand why menstruation causes challenges for many women.
Dean of the Faculty of the School of Public Health Michelle Williams said the study will help people understand why menstruation causes challenges for many women. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Ariel H. Kim and Anjeli R. Macaranas, Crimson Staff Writers

A team of Harvard School of Public Health researchers released preliminary data on March 9 from their digital women’s health study, which aims to destigmatize the menstrual cycle and advance female reproductive health science.

Sponsored by Apple, the study included over 10,000 women across the U.S. who were asked to track their menstrual cycles and complete health surveys through Apple’s Research app. The study — a collaboration between HSPH, Apple, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences — analyzed how women’s health and behaviors affect their menstrual cycles.

“By building a robust generalizable knowledge base, the Apple Women’s Health Study is helping us understand factors that make menstruation difficult and isolating for some people, in addition to elevating awareness of a monthly experience shared by women around the world,” said Michelle Williams, dean of the faculty of the School of Public Health, in a March 9 press release.

Of the symptoms reported by participants, abdominal cramps were the most commonly tracked, with 83 percent reporting. Bloating and tiredness followed with 63 and 61 percent, respectively.

Others reported symptoms including acne, headache, mood and appetite changes, lower back pain, breast tenderness, diarrhea, sleep changes, constipation, and nausea.

Menstrual symptoms were a “shared experience” across different age, race, and geographic location demographics, according to School of Public Health professor Shruthi Mahalingaiah, one of the researchers involved in the study who specializes in reproductive and women’s health.

“We concluded that the period symptoms are a shared experience, at least in this view,” Mahalingaiah said. “Not only are they shared, there’s a very wide range of symptoms that a person can experience.”

The research team intends to integrate data gathered from surveys, medical records, and phone sensors that measure heart rate and other physiologic conditions, said Brent A. Coull, School of Public Health professor of biostatistics and another research team member.

“One thing that’s really exciting is going to try to integrate those different sources of data and combine the strengths of all three types of data to really get a better handle of women's behaviors and lifestyles and also health conditions and how that might contribute overall to their health,” Coull said.

Coull added that the researchers hope to continue the study over an extended period of time to gain more data.

“We really want the study to be broad-based,” Coull said. “We want it to reflect the national population of women, so that it can be generalizable to entire populations.”

In addition to informing the development of products for menstrual health and gynecologic screening, the researchers said, the study's findings may also serve to reduce stigma around menstrual health.

“By studying it, and also creating interfaces where we can share our discovery in a publicly digestible way — so not a research article, but something where it’s relatable to the participant or potential participant — is something I think can help destigmatize menstruation and the process of sharing,” Mahalingaiah said.

—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at ariel.kim@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Anjeli R. Macaranas can be reached at anjeli.macaranas@thecrimson.com.

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