Intended for healthcare professionals


Robert P Heaney

BMJ 2016; 354 doi: (Published 22 September 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;354:i5111
  1. Ned Stafford
  1. Hamburg

Vitamin D advocate and a “Legend of Osteoporosis,” who led the Omaha Nuns Study to investigate the bone biology of ageing women

In the mid-1960s Robert Heaney, an endocrinologist at Creighton University in Omaha in the US, made contact with six Catholic motherhouses. Heaney, a bone and calcium expert, explained to the nuns his plans for a long term study to try to unlock the secrets of osteoporosis. For the study he would need lots of healthy women under the age of 45, willing to—as he later put it—go “under a microscope.”1

His sales pitches worked.

The Omaha Nuns Study

Late one day in 1967, some 168 nuns arrived, suitcases in hand, at the metabolic research unit of Creighton’s old St Joseph Hospital. The nuns would stay at the hospital for the next eight days. They would repeat the monitoring process every five years until 1992, allowing Heaney and his colleagues to study the women—and their bones—as they aged.

At the time, Heaney was already an osteoporosis expert.2 He hatched the plan for the nuns study after realising that he and other researchers had been focusing only on treatments for osteoporosis. He hoped that his study would help develop strategies to prevent it.

From that point, for the rest of his life, Heaney would focus his research on disease prevention and maintaining optimal health. In the early 2000s Heaney—known as “Bob” to friends and colleagues—would become a leading advocate of the potentially wide ranging health benefits of higher doses of vitamin D supplements.

“Bob was one of the drivers of this new perspective on vitamin D,” says Martin …

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