New study will test objective signs of disease in sexual minority women

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A new study underway from the University of Chicago Medicine is thought to be the first to test whether young lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) women differ significantly from heterosexual women when it comes to objective signs of diseases, known as biomarkers.

Kate Keenan, PhD, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh have been interviewing participants in the Pittsburgh Girls study for the last 17 years. Now, the girls in the community-based sample are young women and the investigators realized they would be an ideal sample for this type of study.

"It's really important from a scientific perspective to have an unbiased sample in which to test these hypotheses," Keenan said."The literature on health disparities for sexual minority women is fairly consistent in showing higher risk for heart disease and metabolic problems like diabetes in LGB women, but for the most part it's been based on self-reported and convenience sampling-not representative samples."

The sample of roughly 250 LGB women will be compared with a sample of the same size matched on race and age.

The first part of the study will include assessing indicators of pre-disease states of diabetes and heart disease, which the team will study by taking blood draws to analyze biomarkers such as triglycerides and glucose levels. They'll also look for inflammatory markers.

"It's a pretty critical study," Keenan said. "We've been measuring body mass index (BMI) in these girls for years and we do know there are differences in BMI beginning pretty early. The girls who identify in adolescence and young adulthood as LGB have higher BMIs starting in childhood."

According to Keenan, the team will also test how stress from discrimination due to their sexual minority status affects the women's health. One way to do this, she said, is to have the women speak about their experiences with discrimination while capturing their physiological responses. The final piece of the study will explore protective factors against potential negative health outcomes such as supportive adult presence and the women's school climate when they were adolescents.

The study, which will take places over the next five years, is titled "Examining biomarkers and mechanisms of health disparities in sexual minority women" and is supported by a grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.