Hormone Therapy and Chronic Disease Prevention

By Rachel Walden — June 5, 2012

This month, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released a new report which is informing their updated recommendations on hormone therapy for chronic disease prevention in menopausal women. Bone fractures, dementia, stroke, and urinary incontinence were among the chronic conditions they examined.

In the 2005 recommendations, USPSTF recommended against routine use of combined estrogen and progestin for the prevention of chronic conditions in postmenopausal women, and against estrogen alone for the prevention of chronic conditions in postmenopausal women who have had a hysterectomy. The new research looked at 9 newer studies – mostly from the Women’s Health Initiative – in order to review and update those recommendations.

Based on their review of the evidence, the authors concluded that both regimens – estrogen plus progestin, and estrogen alone – decrease risk of bone fracture but increase risk for stroke, thromboembolic events (blood clots in the legs or lungs), gallbladder disease, and urinary incontinence. Estrogen plus progestin was found to increase risk for breast cancer and probably dementia, while estrogen alone may slightly decrease risk for breast cancer.

The draft new recommendations are very similar to the 2005 ones. The USPSTF “concludes with high certainty that there is zero to negative net benefit for the use of combined estrogen and progestin therapy for the prevention of chronic conditions, and concludes with moderate certainty that there is no net benefit for the use of estrogen alone.” They also explain that the recommendations do not apply to women younger than age 50 who have undergone surgical menopause, and they don’t address use of hormone therapy for the management of menopausal symptoms like hot flashes or vaginal dryness.

There were some limitations of this research described by the authors, like the small number of new studies, variations in the studies that make it hard to combine their findings, and lots of study participants who dropped out before the trials were finished. In addition, most of the women in the studies were 60 to 69 years old. Additional research is needed that looks at women who are transitioning through menopause or immediately postmenopausal.

A Washington Post article puts the findings in context, explaining:

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…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.


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