Over the past decades, menopausal women have been encouraged to use hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for its apparent health- and youth-preserving benefits. It is true that HRT lowers the risk of osteoporosis and possibly colon cancer. But, compared to women not taking hormones, women taking HRT have slightly higher rates of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, heart attack, stroke, blood clots, and Alzheimer's disease as well as other forms of dementia.
Although HRT risks are not high for most women, on average, the small risks outweigh the small benefits. As a result, women's health experts now recommend that, for most women, HRT use should be limited to one or both of the following:
- Short-term menopausal symptom relief.
- Severe osteoporosis risk (when nonhormonal treatments have been considered and/or tried first).
Key points in making your decision
Consider the following when deciding whether to start or continue taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT):
- The risks of short-term HRT use are small but significant, particularly for women with preexisting risk factors.
- After 1 year's use, HRT is linked to changes on mammograms in 40 out of 1,000 women. These changes aren't diagnosed as cancer but require further testing.
- After 5 years' use, HRT is linked to breast cancer in 4 to 6 out of 1,000 women. This risk increases with prolonged HRT use.
- The risk of blood clots in the legs or lungs is greatest during the first 2 years, affecting about 6 out of 1,000 women.
- Heart disease is the number one killer of women, and HRT use causes heart disease in a small number of women.
- Heart risk from HRT does not seem to affect women in their first 10 years after menopause. Review your personal heart risk profile versus possible HRT benefits as part of your treatment decision process.
- For perimenopausal symptoms, consider non-HRT treatments, including breathing-for-relaxation exercises; certain antidepressants, low blood pressure medicines, and black cohosh for hot flashes; and vaginal lubricant or vaginal estrogen (cream, ring, or tablet) for dryness and irritation.
- If you decide to use HRT for symptom relief, use the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible time, and see your doctor regularly to reevaluate your personal benefits and risks.
- HRT helps prevent bone loss and osteoporosis. If you are at high risk for osteoporosis, HRT is one of several treatments you can consider.
What is menopause?
After several years of fluctuating hormone levels and irregular menstruation in your 40s or 50s, your estrogen and progesterone levels begin to decline. After 6 months to 1 year of decline, your estrogen level drops past a certain point, and your menstrual cycle ends. Menopause is the point in time when you've had no menstrual periods for 1 year.
During the first year or so after menopause (postmenopause), estrogen levels continue to decline, which can cause perimenopausal symptoms like hot flashes and insomnia or make them worse. After your hormone levels reach a stable low point, these symptoms are likely to subside. This typically takes 1 to 2 years. But some women continue with symptoms for years, perhaps because their estrogen levels are lower than average.
Low estrogen is part of the healthy, natural state of the postmenopausal phase of life—it is tailored to the way your body is meant to function after your childbearing years. Low estrogen is good for you in the sense that it lowers your hormone-related cancer risk. But because estrogen also plays an important role in skin and bone health, low estrogen creates some health concerns for the postmenopausal woman.
- Following years of gradual decline in bone density and strength, low estrogen after menopause speeds up bone loss, which increases your risk of osteoporosis.
- Low estrogen leads to low collagen, a building block of skin and connective tissue. As a result, the vaginal lining and the lower urinary tract also thin and weaken. This condition, called genitourinary atrophy, can make sexual relations difficult and can increase the risk of vaginal and urinary tract infection.
Although the perimenopausal transition itself is a natural body change that doesn't require treatment, severe symptoms can disrupt a woman's life and sense of well-being. The first and best approach to reducing your perimenopausal symptoms (and long-term health risks related to aging) is to lead a healthy lifestyle—avoid excess caffeine, alcohol, and stress; eat well; and exercise regularly.
If you need additional relief, you have several non-HRT treatment options to choose from. Slow, rhythmic breathing exercises may help you manage hot flashes and emotional symptoms. Vaginal lubricants (such as Astroglide or K-Y Jelly) are useful for vaginal dryness, and vaginal estrogen (cream, ring, or tablet) can help with vaginal dryness and irritation. Certain types of antidepressants or blood pressure medication (clonidine) may reduce hot flashes. Black cohosh may help with hot flashes and other hormone-related symptoms.
Before menopause, you can also consider low-dose estrogen-progestin birth control pills for perimenopausal symptoms and pregnancy prevention, as long as you have no risk factors for heart disease or breast cancer and you do not smoke.
What is hormone replacement therapy?
Estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) refers to the daily use of estrogen to increase a woman's hormones to premenopausal levels. Women with a uterus who take estrogen also need the hormone progestin to prevent the estrogen from affecting the uterine lining (endometrium), which can lead to endometrial cancer. The combination of estrogen and progestin is called hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Women with a uterus take HRT. Women who have had a hysterectomy to remove the uterus take ERT.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has updated its HRT recommendations and now only approves estrogen-progestin HRT for:
- Short-term treatment of perimenopausal symptoms. Women who do decide that HRT benefits outweigh their risks are advised to use the lowest effective dose for as short a time as possible, not exceeding 3 or 4 years.
- Osteoporosis prevention and treatment, in select, severe cases. Most experts recommend that HRT only be considered for women with significant risk of osteoporosis that outweighs their risks from taking HRT.10 Women are now encouraged to consider all possible osteoporosis treatments and to compare their risks and benefits.
What are the benefits of taking estrogen?
When taken as ERT or HRT, estrogen:
- Helps prevent osteoporosis after menopause by slowing bone loss and promoting some increase in bone density.
- Reduces hot flashes and sleep problems in most, but not all, women.
- Maintains the lining of the vagina, reducing irritation.
- Maintains skin collagen levels, which decline as estrogen levels decline. Collagen is responsible for the stretch in skin and muscle.
- Increases the amount of HDL (“good”) cholesterol and decreases the amount of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in the blood.
- Reduces the risk of dental problems, such as tooth loss and gum disease.
- May reduce the risk of colon cancer.
HRT increases the risks of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, blood clots, heart disease, stroke, and dementia. Estrogen alone (ERT) is also linked to increased stroke, ovarian cancer, dementia, and possible breast cancer risk. No particular form or dosage of ERT or HRT has been proved safer than another.
Among the women using HRT in the recent Women's Health Initiative trials, most did not develop major health problems. But after the first 1 to 4 years of using HRT, a small yet significant number of women did develop signs of cancer, blood clots, heart disease, stroke, and dementia.
- Within the first 2 years, HRT use slightly increased the risk of blood clots in the lungs (pulmonary embolism) and legs (deep vein thrombosis) in all healthy postmenopausal women regardless of risk factors.
- During the second year, HRT use began to slightly increase heart attack and stroke risk in all healthy postmenopausal women, regardless of risk factors. Early signs of heart disease first became apparent during the first year of use. Heart disease risk does not increase for women in the first 10 years after menopause.
- After 1 year, HRT use increased the number of abnormal mammograms by approximately 4% each year. Daily estrogen-progestin increased breast density compared with estrogen alone or placebo. Although the abnormal mammograms required additional medical evaluation, they were not linked to an early increase in breast cancer. Studies are ongoing to learn more about breast density change from HRT.
- After 4 years of use, HRT-related breast cancers first became apparent. The number of HRT-related breast cancers increased with each additional year of HRT use. Women taking HRT generally had larger, more advanced tumors than women who developed breast cancer while taking a placebo treatment. (But some of these cancers may respond more favorably to treatment.)
- After 4 years, HRT use slightly increased the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias in women ages 65 and older. HRT does not provide protection from dementia or cognitive impairment, as was previously believed. (Most of the women in this study started HRT several years after menopause, when Alzheimer's risk naturally increases. So, experts do not yet know whether the effect of HRT on Alzheimer's risk is the same for younger women who use short-term HRT starting at menopause.) An HRT-related increase in dementia has been observed in women older than 65.
Low-dose HRT. The typical HRT dose is 0.625 mg of estrogen plus 2.5 mg of progestin. In March 2003, the FDA approved a low-dose version of Prempro, containing 0.3 mg of estrogen and 1.5 mg of progestin. This low-dose version may help hot flashes and bone density and is hoped to reduce the risks related to higher-dose HRT, but it needs more study.
Low-dose estrogen for osteoporosis. Researchers are studying the effects of low-dose estrogen therapy. A small early study has shown that a low estrogen dose—0.25 mg per day—may keep the bones as strong as the higher dose. But the long-term risks of taking low-dose estrogen are not yet known.
How and when do I stop taking hormone replacement therapy?
There is no way of knowing in advance whether you will have perimenopausal symptoms when you stop using HRT (or ERT). While some women have no symptoms, others are mildly affected, and some have moderate to severe symptoms. Most women find that their symptoms subside over time.
How to stop HRT. There are currently no evidence-based guidelines for stopping HRT. Talk to your doctor about how you should stop HRT. Your doctor may want you to stop HRT right away or try tapering off. You may taper off by lowering your daily dose, increasing the time between dosages, or trimming back an estrogen patch over time.
When to stop HRT. Ultimately, it is up to you and your doctor to decide how long you will take HRT. After weighing the risks, some women will continue to take HRT for years to come, while others stop as soon as they learn of the risks. If you have been taking HRT for many years, talk to your doctor about stopping HRT.
There are currently no evidence-based guidelines for when to stop short-term HRT. But based on the risks, HRT use for 4 or more years is considered "long term."
If you develop symptoms when tapering or suddenly stopping HRT, consider how severe your symptoms are, what other treatment options are available for symptom relief, and how long you've been taking HRT. You can:
- Slightly increase your HRT dose until symptoms subside. After another 6 months to 1 year, try to taper off again.
- Continue with your plan to stop HRT and see whether symptoms subside over a few months.
- Continue with your plan to stop HRT and try another type of treatment.
If you have decided that you are in need of symptom treatment after menopause or that you need to treat or prevent osteoporosis, your choices are:
- Use another treatment for perimenopausal symptoms or osteoporosis prevention.
- Use low-dose hormone replacement therapy for the shortest time possible.
Making a decision about HRT
Reasons to take HRT
- Low-dose, short-term HRT (up to 4 years). You have no risk factors for heart disease, blood clots, stroke, or breast or ovarian cancer, are willing to accept the small increase in risks of cancer and heart disease, and you:
- Have considered or tried other treatments.
- Have moderate to severe perimenopausal symptoms that are disrupting your sleep and/or daily life.
- Long-term HRT. You are willing to accept the breast and ovarian cancer, blood clot, heart disease, and possible dementia risks of continuing HRT for longer than 4 years, and you:
- Are at high risk for osteoporosis and have considered or tried other osteoporosis therapies.
- Have long-standing perimenopausal symptoms (such as hot flashes) that only HRT will relieve.
Reasons to not take HRT
- You have not considered or tried other treatment options.
- You are concerned about blood clot and stroke risk.
- You are 10 or more years past menopause and are concerned about heart disease risk.
- You have been taking HRT for longer than 4 years and are concerned about increased cancer and dementia risks.
- You only have vaginal or urinary tract symptoms, which can be treated with vaginal estrogen (cream, ring, or tablet).
- You need a preventive treatment for heart disease or stroke (HRT does not prevent these conditions).
- A personal history of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, or endometrial cancer.
- A personal history of pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis, heart attack, or stroke. (Your risks may also be higher if you have a family history of these conditions.)
- Vaginal bleeding from an unknown cause.
- Active liver disease (oral estrogen stresses the liver; an estrogen patch or cream does not).
These personal stories about deciding whether to take HRT may help you make your decision.
Wise Health Decision
Answer these questions with Yes/No/Unsure, to help you make your decision. After completing it, you should have a better idea of how you feel about hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Discuss the answers with your doctor.
- I have tried other perimenopausal treatment options.
- I can consider using low-dose birth control pills because I have not yet reached menopause.
- I am in my 50s and consider my cancer, heart disease, and dementia risks to be low.
- I have a high osteoporosis risk.
- I have a personal or family history of heart attack, stroke, blood clots in the lungs or legs, or breast or ovarian cancer.
- I have unbearable perimenopausal symptoms that other therapies cannot control.
- I think I would take HRT for as long as I need relief from bothersome symptoms.
- I have been taking HRT for more than 4 years.
- I would consider taking HRT, but only for a short period of time.
Your answers in the above questions are meant to give you a general idea of where you stand on this decision. You may have one overriding reason to use or not use hormone replacement therapy.
Article by Robin Parks, MS