The Hormone Therapy Decision

The end of the “hormone therapy era” appears to have been greatly exaggerated.

More than a decade ago, research from the Women’s Health Initiative, a major study, advised menopausal women to stop their hormone replacement therapy due to a reported increase in breast cancer, strokes and heart attacks.

In the years since then, though, potential flaws and limitations with that study have come to light, and the pendulum may have swung back the other way.

The North American Menopause Society, the American Menopause Society and the International Menopause Society all now say the risk-benefit ratio favors hormone therapy when it’s initiated near the time that menopause begins.

All that conflicting information may leave some women puzzled and frustrated.

“Trying to wade through all the studies and opinions over the years can definitely get confusing for patients,” says Dr. Diana Hoppe, an obstetrician/gynecologist and founder of Amazing Over 40 Inc. (www.amazingover40.com), a health coaching certification program for women.

“But I think more and more we are seeing that while, yes, there are risks, there are also benefits and each individual situation is going to vary. That’s why an in-depth talk with your doctor is important.”

Women who have gone through menopause are familiar with the symptoms brought on by their lower hormone levels: hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, irritability, decreased concentration and focus, decreased sex drive and vaginal dryness.

Doctors sometimes try to help them combat those symptoms by giving them estrogen or progesterone.

Hoppe says there are strategies that women and their physicians can use to increase the benefits of hormone therapy and decrease its risks. Here are three examples:

Start early because timing is critical. Women should begin the therapy within the first 10 years of the onset of menopause, and they should be younger than 60 when they start. Just recently, a Swedish study suggested that the impact of hormone therapy on heart disease depends on how quickly women start the therapy, according to the North American Menopause Society. The study, which was presented Sept. 30 at the society’s annual meeting, showed that women who start taking hormones shortly after the onset of menopause remain free of coronary heart disease for longer periods of time.

Use the lowest effective dose that works. The lower the dose to treat symptoms, the better because that in turn lowers the risk of side effects.

Be truthful about risk factors. The more your physician knows about your health-related habits and background, the better, Hoppe says. Risk factors for hormone therapy can include smoking, family history of heart disease, high cholesterol profile, history of clotting disorder and liver disease.

Ultimately, it’s important for women to engage in a discussion with their physician about what they are going through, Hoppe says.


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