Hormone Therapy: Surprising Research

In 2002, a major research trial for hormone therapy was abruptly halted for causing disease; researchers today analyze the risks 10 years on.

Hormone Therapy: Surprising ResearchSteve Taylor/Getty Images

July 2002 In a sea-changing shocker, a major research trial was abruptly halted, and health care for women dramatically changed. Scientists learned that the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), designed to see if hormone therapy (HT) for menopause could prevent disease, was doing the opposite. Treatment raised the risk of heart attack, stroke, blood clots, and cancer in many of the thousands studied. A year later, prescriptions plummeted 38 percent. Breast cancer rates in women 50 and older dropped nearly 7 percent compared with the previous year.

July 2012 Ongoing reanalyses of WHI data suggest that HT may not be as bad as originally thought. The average age of women in the trial was 63; many were well into menopause when they began treatment. After crunching the data on 50-to-59-year-olds, researchers say that starting combined HT within ten years of menopause may be less risky to the heart than beginning it later. And after women stop taking hormones, the risk of heart disease, blood clots, and stroke drops; an increased risk of breast cancer remains for about two years.

Bottom line: When taken for a limited time (about three years), HT is a viable option for women in their 40s and 50s suffering from hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms. But HT is not a good idea for those with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or a personal or family history of blood clots or breast cancer.

Sources: JoAnn E. Manson, MD, a principal investigator of the WHI, chief of the division of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston; Jacques Rossouw, MD, chief of the WHI Branch at the National Institutes of Health


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