Harvard Chan School, Apple, and NIH launch women’s health study

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Research effort will use smartphone app to collect data

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Apple, and the National Institutes of Health today launched the Apple Women’s Health Study.

The large-scale longitudinal study, led by a team of researchers at Harvard Chan School, leverages participants’ voluntary use of a smartphone research app to advance understanding of menstrual and gynecological health.

By making use of information and study activities from personal devices, the first-of-its-kind study will shed light on women’s overall health needs across the lifespan. The multi-year study has the potential to become the largest and longest-running longitudinal study of women’s health in the U.S.

“Treating the menstrual cycle as a vital sign, such as heart rate or blood pressure, could lead to the earlier detection of many health conditions, both gynecological and systemic, as well as a better understanding of women’s reproductive health and health needs overall,” said study researcher Shruthi Mahalingaiah, assistant professor of environmental reproductive and women’s health at Harvard Chan School. “We are uniquely poised to translate this data into discovery that will lead to better awareness and empowerment around women’s health issues on a global scale.”

The study employs a research app, available on an iPhone, to collect study-specific data, such as cycle tracking information, and uses monthly surveys to understand each participant’s unique menstrual experience. The study, which will last many years, also seeks to analyze the impact of certain behaviors and habits, such as physical activity and mobility, on a wide breadth of reproductive health topics.

“In the past it’s been very difficult to quantify behavioral factors,” said study researcher Jukka-Pekka Onnela, associate professor of biostatistics at Harvard Chan School. “With data from smartphones and wearable devices, we can eventually measure these factors unobtrusively over long periods of time. This is scientifically incredibly exciting, and I believe that this research will enable more effective and more personalized interventions in the future.”

Michelle A. Williams, a reproductive epidemiologist and dean of the faculty at Harvard Chan School, is leading the study as a principal investigator, along with Harvard Chan co-principal investigators Russ Hauser, Frederick Lee Hisaw Professor of Reproductive Physiology and chair of the Department of Environmental Health, and Brent Coull, professor of biostatistics and associate chair of the Department of Biostatistics.

“By working with Apple through the research app, we will be able to securely collect an unprecedented amount of data on this topic over the course of over many years — all while ensuring every participant has full control over their data and its privacy,” said Williams, Angelopoulos Professor in Public Health and International Development. “Study participants will contribute to an effort we hope will ultimately enrich the public health community’s understanding of these topics for generations to come.”