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HRT: Where Are We Now?

Is hormone therapy (HRT) making a comeback?
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WebMD Feature

A few years ago, the use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) looked like a medical mess. For decades, women were told that HRT -- usually a combination of estrogen and progestin -- was good for them during and after menopause. Then the 2002 results of the Women's Health Initiative study seemed to show just the opposite: hormone replacement therapy actually had life-threatening risks such as heart attacks, strokes, and cancer.

"Women felt betrayed," says Isaac Schiff, MD, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "They were calling their doctors, saying, 'How could you put me on this drug which causes heart attacks, strokes, and cancer?'"

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Almost overnight, standard medical practice changed. Doctors stopped prescribing hormone replacement therapy and 65% of women on HRT quit, according to Schiff.

But some experts say hormone replacement therapy may be coming back. All along HRT remained an important treatment for menopause symptoms like hot flashes. And now, a number of recent studies show that hormone replacement therapy may have protective benefits for women who are early in menopause.

"I think we swung too positive on hormone therapy in the past and then we went too negative," says Schiff, who is also chair of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Task Force on Hormone Therapy. "Now we're trying to find a balance in between."

Hormone Replacement Therapy: The New Evidence

"We're definitely in a gray zone of uncertainty about hormone therapy," says Jacques Rossouw, MD, project officer for the federal Women's Health Initiative (WHI). "But when you're uncertain, you have to err on the side of safety."

While Rossouw concedes that new studies show some preventative benefit for younger women, he says any potential benefit is very slight. And, he notes, there is no evidence that any benefit would last if women kept taking hormones as they got older.

But increasing numbers of researchers say there should be a place for hormone replacement therapy as a preventive treatment for limited periods as it may help prevent disease in younger women around the age of menopause.

"We have evidence that hormone therapy can prevent heart disease, hip fractures, and osteoporosis, and that it cuts the risk of developing diabetes by 30% in younger women," says Shelley R. Salpeter, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at Stanford University's School of Medicine.

In one recent study, Salpeter and her colleagues found that HRT reduced the number of heart attacks and cardiac deaths by 32% in women who were 60 or younger (or women who had been through menopause less than 10 years ago). In older women, hormone replacement therapy seemed to increase cardiac events in the first year, and then began to reduce them after two years.

The 32% drop is significant, but perhaps not as dramatic as it sounds. In hard numbers, Salpeter estimates that of women aged 50 to 59 who don't get hormone replacement therapy, about 7 out of 4,800 will have a cardiac event in one year. With HRT, 3 out of 4,800 will have a cardiac event.

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