Hormone Therapy May Improve Memory
Brain Imaging Study Shows Benefit in Postmenopausal Women
Nov. 17, 2006 -- Memory complaints are common among women going through
menopause. Now research finds that the most widely used treatment for hot
flashes and other menopausal symptoms may improve memory as well.
The new brain imaging study confirms that hormone therapy has a direct and
immediate effect on the part of the brain that controls a critical component of
More activity was seen in that region of the brain -- known as the
prefrontal cortex -- in postmenopausal women taking hormone therapy than in
similarly-aged women who were not taking hormones.
"Our findings suggest that even relatively short periods of hormone
therapy have effects on the memory systems that may be of benefit to some women
during the perimenopausal transition or early postmenopause," says
researcher Yolanda Smith, MD, MS, of the University of Michigan Health
Hormone Therapy and Alzheimer's
Just a few years ago, many experts believed hormone therapy had a beneficial
long-term impact on the brain by lowering a woman's risk of Alzheimer's disease.
However, several recent studies suggest the opposite may be true, including
the Women's Health Initiative Memory Study (WHIMS), published in the spring of
WHIMS researchers concluded that combined estrogen-progestin therapy was
associated with a doubling of Alzheimer's risk in women 65 and older.
Studies examining the short-term impact of hormone therapy on memory and
other brain functions have been inconclusive.
Testing Brain Activity
In a study designed to literally see this impact, Smith and colleagues
measured brain activity in 10 postmenopausal women between the ages of 50 and
60, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
The women were treated with either combined estrogen-progestin or placebo
for a month, followed by a month with no medication.
Those receiving hormones and placebo were then switched for four additional
Brain activity was measured as the women performed standardized tests
designed to assess visual memory.
Compared to women on placebo, those on hormone therapy showed more focused
use of the prefrontal cortex, suggesting more efficient brain function, Smith
The findings are published in the Nov. 16 issue of the Journal of
Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.
"Our findings suggest that even short-term use of hormone therapy for
symptoms like hot flashes may be altering brain function in a positive
way," Smith says.
Clinical Significance Not Clear
Although memory complaints are common during perimenopause and beyond, there is little direct
evidence that the hormonal changes that occur during the transition to
menopause have a direct impact on brain function, says Victor W. Henderson, MD,
Henderson is a professor of health research and neurology at Stanford
University, where he studies the effects of aging
on the brain.
"That doesn't mean that women don't experience symptoms related to
memory loss during this point in their lives," he tells WebMD. "Many
do. But it is still not clear if these symptoms are directly related to
menopause or to other things going on in their busy, complicated lives at this
Documenting hormone therapy's direct impact on a key area of the brain is
important, Henderson says. But he adds that the clinical significance of the
findings remain unknown.
Rather than proving a positive benefit for hormone therapy, the brain
changes seen in this and other imaging studies could be indicative of a
negative impact, he says.
Until more is known, Henderson believes memory should not be part of the
equation when women are deciding whether or not to take hormones as they
transition to menopause.
"There just isn't enough known about the cognitive effect of hormone
therapy in this age group to consider it an indication for its use."