New study sounds warning on hormone replacement therapy

May 28, 2012

Women who are past menopause and healthy should not take hormone replacement therapy in hopes of warding off dementia, bone fractures or heart disease, according to a new analysis by the government task force that weighs the risks and benefits of screening and other therapies aimed at preventing illness.

The recommendation by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force does not necessarily apply to women who take hormone replacement therapy to reduce menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats and vaginal dryness. The balance of harms and benefits for that use is expected to be addressed in an imminent report by the federal government’s Office of Health Quality Research.

The latest recommendation, published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, comes from an organization accustomed to kicking up controversy. In recent months, the task force has recommended against routine breast cancer screenings for most women younger than 50. It has also urged that the prostate-specific antigen (or PSA) test that has become a standard part of older men’s yearly physicals be abandoned.

Its latest recommendation could be a bit less controversial, but is likely to have detractors among doctors who have come to believe that the dangers of hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women have been overblown.

The recommendation is largely based on revised analyses of the landmark Women’s Health Initiative, a 15-year study involving more than 160,000 women. It comes a decade after the study first linked hormone replacement therapy with higher rates of invasive breast cancer. Those initial findings prompted droves of women to abandon or avoid hormone therapy.

But a decade of subsequent research has tempered much of the fear, and preliminary but conflicting studies had suggested that some post-menopausal women taking hormones might benefit from lower rates of bone fractures, dementia and heart disease.

The task force found limited evidence that hormones protect against bone fractures, and no evidence that they reduce the most probable threat — heart disease. It also found that for most menopausal women taking hormone therapy, the risk of developing dementia later in life actually rose a bit.

Against these sparse benefits, the panel weighed relatively new evidence of the risks for menopausal women on hormone therapy, including a significantly higher rate of life-threatening blood clots in the legs and lungs, a greater probability of gallbladder disease, and increased risk of urinary incontinence that persisted in studies for at least three years.

Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a doctor who was chairman of the panel, said its members took pains to put the possible benefits of hormone replacement therapy in context. One form of hormone replacement therapy — estrogen alone — did appear to slightly reduce the incidence of breast cancer. Invasive breast cancer looms large as a concern to many women, but affects just 11 percent of them past menopause.

That possible protective effect became less consequential when weighed against hormone therapy’s impact on far more likely risks to women’s health, said Bibbins-Domingo, professor of medicine and of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California-San Francisco. It fails to reduce the risk of heart disease, which will affect 30 percent of women who live past menopause. It slightly increased the likelihood of dementia, which will affect 22 percent of all post-menopausal women. It was linked to a higher likelihood of stroke, affecting 21 percent of these women.

Today, 1 in 5 post-menopausal American women takes hormone replacement therapy, largely to treat symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats and vaginal dryness. That is about half the rate in 2002, when 40 percent took hormones.

The task force said its decision to recommend against hormone therapy for prevention of chronic diseases is based on “at least fair” evidence that its harms outweigh its benefits, or that its use is ineffective. But Bibbins-Domingo, the lead author of the report, said the panel struggled with two slightly different mixes of potential harms and benefits: those linked to standard hormone therapy, which includes estrogen and progestin and is used by most women; and those linked to estrogen alone, which is prescribed to women whose uterus has been removed.

— Los Angeles Times

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