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Walter Willett, M.D.



M.D., 1970, University of Michigan Medical School
M.P.H. 1973, Harvard School of Public Health
Dr.P.H., 1980, Harvard School of Public Health, Epidemiology
Chair, 1991, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health

Our research primarily involves the investigation of dietary factors, using epidemiologic approaches, in the cause and prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other important conditions. Fundamental to this work has been the development of methods to measure dietary intake in large populations. Thus we have devoted substantial ongoing effort to the creation and refinement of standardized dietary questionnaires that can be completed repeatedly by subjects over a number of years. Such questionnaires have now been demonstrated to provide reasonably accurate assessments of a wide spectrum of dietary factors. In addition, we continue to work on the development and evaluation of biological markers of dietary intake, particularly using plasma and toenail samples. These biological indicators are primarily utilized in nested case-control studies using the large specimen banks collected prospectively as part of our ongoing studies.
The primary studies conducted by our group involve several large ongoing prospective cohorts, the 121,700-member Nurses' Health Study, initiated by Dr. Frank Speizer at the Channing Laboratory; the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, a cohort of 52,000 men; and the Nurses' Health Study II, a cohort of younger women numbering 116,000. Dietary data have been collected from all of these populations, including five cycles in the Nurses' Health Study. As examples of the relationships we have studied, we have described a positive association between alcohol consumption and breast cancer but no relation with fat intake, a positive association between animal fat and red meat consumption and risk of colon cancer, strong inverse associations between vitamin E consumption and risk of coronary heart disease in both men and women, a positive association between partially hydrogenated vegetable fats and coronary heart disease incidence, and inverse association between intake of calcium and kidney stones. Other endpoints being examined in the study with regard to diet include diabetes, cataracts, glaucoma, gallstones, and other malignancies.

In addition to investigations regarding nutritional factors, we are evaluating relationships between the use of exogenous hormones in the form of oral contraceptives and post-menopausal estrogens to risks of breast cancer and other diseases. Also, other lifestyle factors, such as physical activity, are being examined in relation to occurrence of important diseases.


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