This news may make you rest a little more easily if you have had a hysterectomy and took estrogen pills in your 50s when menopause typically begins. A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that strokes and other health problems linked with women taking estrogen pills seem to fade when menopausal women quit taking the pills. The study also found that women who took estrogen-only pills in their 50s did better after stopping the treatment than women who started taking the hormones in their 70s.
This study, which follows up on the landmark The Women’s Health Initiative Study and involved 10,730 participants who were part of the estrogen-only portion of that federal study, “bolsters previous evidence that concerns about breast cancer and heart attacks are largely unfounded for those who take the hormone for a short period of time to relieve hot flashes and other menopause symptoms,” Associated Press reporter Lindsey Tanner wrote.
Doctors often prescribe estrogen-only pills for women who have had a hysterectomy; these women were the focus of the follow-up study. Women with an intact uterus are prescribed a combination pill of estrogen and progestin to ease menopause symptoms since research has found that using estrogen alone can raise the risk of uterine cancer.
Time.com’s Alice Park noted that the results from the initial WHI study found that taking only estrogen at menopause didn’t protect a woman from heart disease; instead, these pills increased the risk of stroke as well as deep vein thrombosis, which is a source of potentially deadly blood clots. The follow-up study found that the harmful effects to the heart ended when estrogen therapy ended. Thus, researchers believe that health effects caused by taking hormones may be reversed if hormones are not taken for a long period of time. The recommendation is that estrogen be taken only by women who have had a hysterectomy.
Those women who have not had a hysterectomy should ask their doctors about a combination of estrogen and progestin therapy for a short period of time. Park pointed out that while the Women’s Health Initiative initially found a 24% increased risk of heart disease, a 24% increased risk of breast cancer, and a 24% decrease in overall fractures among women taking hormone replacement pills (as opposed to those participants who were taking a placebo), the risk of heart disease, stroke and blood clots among women taking the pills dropped to normal levels three years after stopping the therapy. Furthermore, the pill’s benefit in preventing bone fractures also dissipated.
“So is that the final word on hormone therapy?” Park wrote. “Probably not, as the researchers continue to analyze the data from both the combination estrogen-progestin trial and the estrogen-only study.” Tanner noted that the study reinforces the advice doctors have been giving: “Take hormones to relieve menopause symptoms in the lowest possible dose for the shortest possible time.”