Ten years ago this summer, the National Institutes of Health shocked women and their doctors when it halted a study of hormone therapy because of the potential dangers to the thousands of women participating in the research. The news prompted millions of women to toss out their estrogen pills and made many mistrust their doctors and the medical establishment.
A decade after that blockbuster news, most women are still confused about the risks and benefits of hormones at menopause thanks to a slew of apparently contradictory studies that have come out since the halting of the initial study, called the Women's Health Initiative.
In order to clarify the situation, a group of major medical organizations today came out with recommendations on hormone use based on what scientists have learned in the last decade. These include:
Age: the statement says that hormone therapy is a reasonable choice for women within a few years of menopause (the average age in this country is 51). It is recommended only for women who are bothered by symptoms that can be alleviated by hormones. That mostly means hot flashes, which affect up to 75 percent of women although in most cases, not severely enough to require treatment.
Dose: For women whose only symptom is vaginal dryness, the statement recommends the use of a low-dose estrogen.
Risk: Although hormone therapy increases the chances of blood clots, the risk is lower in women under 59. The risk of breast cancer also increases when a woman is on hormone therapy for five years or even less but the risk declines after a woman stops taking hormones.
Estrogen: Women who still have uteruses should take estrogen with a progestin, synthetic progesterone, to prevent uterine cancer. Women who no longer have their uteruses because of a hysterectomy only have to take estrogen.
Decisions: There is no one-size-fits-all decision that applies to women. Each patient should discuss their personal risks and benefits of hormone therapy with their doctor.