Many women in the 1990s saw hormone replacement therapy (HRT) as the ultimate wonder drug. It cut down on the often miserable symptoms of menopause and didn’t seem to have a downside. In 2000, confusing early reports from Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) changed everything when it appeared to show that HRT caused a greatly increased occurrence of breast cancer. Near panic ensued and women abandoned the treatment.
A new Australian study that interviewed thousands of volunteers since 1991 aims to shine a new light on HRT. It found that HRT use peaked in 2000 when 22 percent of women over the age of 50 were taking it. Since the Women’s Health Initiative story broke, the number has fallen to 11.8 percent. At the same time, increasing numbers of women are trying untested and unapproved alternatives to ease their menopausal symptoms.
The Australian study purports to show that problems with the WHI’s structure and data interpretation, combined with flawed reporting on its results led to widespread misconceptions about about the risks and rewards of HRT. In fact, there’s evidence that hormone replacement therapy, particularly in the early years of menopause, can have beneficial effects on bone, heart, and brain health. For example, most of the participants in the Women’s Health Initiative were 13-14 years into menopause, so the study missed the fact that HRT can prevent the thickening of arteries in women when taken during first five years of menopause.
Additionally, many media sources incorrectly reported the WHI data to mean that 26 percent of women taking HRT would develop breast cancer. In reality, it showed an increased breast cancer risk of less than a 0.1 percent per year. A woman’s genetics, background, and factors including the exact kind and duration of her HRT regimen can have a more pronounced effect on her likelihood of getting breast cancer.
This study should urge women and their doctors to take another look a their menopause treatment options. An individual approach to each woman’s age, risk factors, health, and quality of life concerns may find that the benefits of hormone replacement therapy outweigh the risks. HRT may not the the panacea it was once viewed as, but used correctly, it can be an important tool in treating the physical and emotional effects of menopause.