A comparative investigation of sociodemographic and behavioral risk factors for cardiovascular disease and breast cancer in a cohort of Catholic nuns and a representative sample of U.S. women

Jeanne M Wiest, Purdue University


Catholic nuns represent a unique cohort of American women, given their celibate mandate, other religious proscriptions, and diverse occupations, yet little is known of their actual health status and how they compare to a matched group of secular women. The purpose of this study was to assess the prevalence of cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, and related risk factors in a large, geographically diverse congregation of nuns and to compare the results to national databases. An 82-item questionnaire was constructed using items from the 1992 NHIS and NHANES III and mailed to the entire congregation (N = 1242). A 74.9% usable return rate was realized. The national databases were matched by sex, race (White), age (31-94 yrs.), and education (college +). There was no significant difference between groups in cardiovascular disease prevalence. Breast cancer prevalence could not be ascertained by the national databases so no comparisons could be made. Compared to the secular comparison groups of women, a significantly higher percentage of nuns reported more recent gynecologic examinations, mammography, and clinical breast examinations. Compared to the other women, the nuns were significantly less likely to perform monthly breast self-examination, and significantly less likely to smoke cigarettes or drink alcoholic beverages. Compared to the other women, a significantly higher percentage of nuns reported being overweight, as calculated by body mass index (BMI). However, there was no association between BMI and either cardiovascular disease or breast cancer. Logistic regression revealed that age, family history, diabetes, hypertension and aspirin therapy were positively related to CVD in the nuns; only age was significantly associated with breast cancer in the nuns. Overall the nuns reported a high level of self-perceived health. Unfortunate limitations of the national databases used for comparison was the lack of adequate sample size for older women and the "Never Married" group's lack of congruence for the nulliparous status of the nuns. ^




Major Professor: Gerald C. Hyner, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Women's Studies|Health Sciences, Public Health|Sociology, Demography

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