As osteoporosis transformed her mother's figure, Karen Ryan saw the bone-weakening disease change her mother's affability, too. Along with a slouched posture, it brought a social slump.
With the struggle to find clothes that fit, Ryan said, her mother began to withdraw and became inactive.
But Ryan, a doctor, saw a nonmedical solution that could be the perfect fit for women with osteoporosis: clothing made just for them, designed for comfort and confidence.
Working with a clothing design professor at the University of Minnesota and a powerful scanner equipped with eight lasers, Ryan has created patterns and designs to fit the unique needs of women with osteoporosis. Now she is turning her attention to how to bring the clothing to the mass market.
Osteoporosis characteristically twists spines. As vertebrae easily fracture, the spine essentially collapses to create a distinctive hunched shape, or kyphosis -- complicating the search for garments that fit and flatter.
"It was almost impossible to find [such garments] when I was shopping for my mother," Ryan said. Inspired by her mother's plight, she went back to school to learn how to construct the clothes herself.
In spring 2002, Ryan met with Karen LaBat, a University of Minnesota clothing design professor, to discuss her plans. Ultimately, Ryan landed in a graduate program there.
As she became immersed in her venture, she scaled back hours at her medical practice, eventually shutting its doors.
"I can do more good for more people getting this off the ground than seeing patients one at a time," Ryan said, adding that baby boomers are hitting the most common age for osteoporosis, 50 and older.
An estimated 10 million Americans have the disease, 80 percent of them women, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF).
"We're working to prevent osteoporosis and prevent fractures, but there's still going to be a profound problem," said Susan Randall, NOF senior director of education.
People with osteoporosis often withdraw because they fear another fall, and consequently another fracture, she said.
"You don't want to put another barrier in front of them," Randall said. "If they want to go out, they should feel good doing it."
The NOF recently updated its fashion tips, available online and in booklets, drafted early this decade by students at the New York-based Fashion Institute of Technology.
"There is a great need for women to have stylish clothing that helps to make the most of their silhouette and plays down their kyphosis," Randall said.
The design challenge
To help fill that need, Ryan now spends plenty of time in the Human Dimensioning Lab on the University's St. Paul campus. There, she works with lab director LaBat and a $125,000 scanner to measure body dimensions.
The scanner and companion software can capture "hundreds of thousands to millions" of data points, which combine to make a figure, Ryan said, much like video-game animation.
From the single subject she has worked with, Ryan fashioned a dress form of a woman with osteoporosis. The sunken shoulders, sagging bust and protruding abdomen are vastly different from a standard dress form, she said. She'll need to measure about 30 more women to fine-tune her creation.
In testing more women, Ryan said, she will be able to standardize measurements of osteoporosis-friendly clothing.
"It's not going to be a custom fit, but it'll be a better fit than anything that's on the market," she said.
Without 3D imaging, the process would barely be possible, said LaBat, who researches sizing and fitting.
"With tape measures, we could never figure out how to relate" all the elements of an osteoporosis-stricken body, she said.
Ryan said she's found vertical lines in front and horizontal in back to be flattering.
Additionally, shorter shirt fronts and longer backs can offset curved posture, while legs go virtually unchanged and should be showcased. "Her legs are probably her best feature," she said.
Still before all that, it comes down to the pattern, which for women with osteoporosis looks quite different from the standard industry model. Before it hits the racks, Ryan's concept needs a manufacturer's backing. She estimated the process of securing that support is about seven years off. For now, she's polishing the patterns and designs.
"It's a daunting task," she said, "but it's fun and exciting, too."
Karlee Weinmann is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.