For years hormone replacement therapy was promoted as a defense against a host of age-related ailments. Over the last two years, the Women’s Health Initiative, a series of long-term studies funded by the National Institutes of Health, revealed that taking an estrogen-progestin combination slightly increases the risk of stroke and blood clots and may also increase the risk of heart disease, breast cancer, and dementia. In June researchers from the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study added a dismal confirmation: estrogen-only replacement therapy in postmenopausal women who’ve had a hysterectomy not only fails to prevent memory loss but may also increase the risk of dementia.
The study tracked 2,947 women, ages 65 to 79, over five years and found that 28 of the women on estrogen developed dementia, compared with only 19 of those on placebos. “Though the results were deemed statistically insignificant, the news was that it flew in the face of most previous studies,” says Vivian Dickerson, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, who argues that the study should not inhibit women from using hormone replacement in early menopause to relieve symptoms such as hot flashes and mood swings. “The media reported this in such a way that women didn’t realize that their own personal risk was extremely small. And the study did not address whether hormone replacement therapy given during early menopause might offer cognitive protection. You’d need to do a study for 30 or 40 years before you’d understand how brain receptors might behave differently exposed to estrogen throughout the menopausal years.”