How did you get into research, why this area?
As an undergraduate I had a professor who got me involved in a small project looking the efficiency of exercise in tri- and bi-athletes and which activity is better to start off doing in those races. We found out that it was better to start biking than running, because it is less stressful on the body.
This is when I realized that I liked research, and also working with people. I started out in cardiac rehab and worked on research projects related to exercise performance and the heart. The thing I love about research is that it is really about telling a story or putting together a puzzle– we propose what we want to do, having some data to support our theory, and then figure out if we can do it. It’s great to look at “what happens next” in research.
Why is your research important?
My research focus on women started when I took over a cardiovascular aging study in women where there was an assumption that what was previously shown in the aging vasculature in men would also show in women. We performed a large scale study including premenopausal women and postmenopausal women who were already using hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and women who were not, women who exercised and women who did not exercise. We also took the postmenopausal women who were taking HRT but not exercising and enrolled them in a 3 month moderate intensity walking program.
We found that women who were not exercising initially but who took HRT had healthier arteries than women who did not. Additionally, these women who participated in the 3 month walking program showed a huge benefit and were ultimately able to restore their vascular health to youthful levels. But because those women were already on HRT for an average of 10 years it is possible that taking HRT at the onset of menopause helped their arteries to respond to exercise and return them to youthful levels. We are looking at what is the critical window of intervening to protect artery health– when women are in transition or in the early post-menopausal period.
It is important for us to identify the point in the female aging process when hormones start to fluctuate and when artery health begins to decline. We also want to identify what is causing this to happen, particularly with the decline from pre-menopausal to peri-menopausal. What we find will show WHERE the intervention needs to happen and what therapies need to take place that will be effective for maintaining artery health.
We have to figure out why it is that women may not see the same level of exercise benefit that older men do. It is possible that they do if they have a bit of estrogen. Thus, if we intervene in the critical early window, then the exercise adaptation should work better if our theory is correct. And because women are living longer and a third of their life after menopause, it is important that they maintain quality of life and not develop chronic diseases such as CVD.
What are your hopes and dreams for your research?
My hope is that CVD is no longer the number 1 killer of women and that we will have identified the appropriate therapeutic and intervention therapies to maintain good vascular health.
Because some of our preliminary work suggest that exercise in postmenopausal women may not be beneficial without estrogen; the focus of our next research project is to understand why this is and whether women will need estrogen or something similar to estrogen to reap the benefits of exercise for vascular health.