In 2011, researchers worked tirelessly and experts debated intensely over the safety and effectiveness of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for women. This has been a hot topic for nearly 20 years, thanks to the very controversial study known as the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) began in 1991.
For those who may not be familiar with this study, the WHI was the largest long-term study of the effects of synthetic hormones on women, which was prematurely halted in 2002 because many subjects were shown to have an increased risk of heart disease and osteoporosis. These inconclusive results left women fearful for their health and distraught over where to find relief from the symptoms of menopause.
In the March 2011 issue of the medical journal Menopause, researchers conducted an in-depth analysis of the WHI study along with several more recent studies on HRT. Scientists uncovered some very interesting facts and good news for women facing issues with menopause and aging.
The first study, known as the California Teacher’s Study (CTS), spanned from 1995 to 2004. Researchers reviewed data from a baseline questionnaire given to 71,000 retired female teachers. One branch of the study analyzed the effects of HRT on the health of these women, only to uncover statistics in opposition to the findings of the WHI study.
Unlike the WHI study, analysis of the CTS surveys revealed that women aged 34 to 59 had a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease with the use of HRT, while women in the eldest category, aged 70 to 84, had no increase in their risk for heart disease while using HRT. Even in the WHI study, women who began HRT between the ages of 50 to 59 experienced a decreased risk of heart disease.
A November 2011 study took a closer look at the effects of discontinuation of HRT at varying points in the lifespan. This study analyzed the bone density of 50,000 women who were either on HRT or had discontinued use. These women were followed for 6½ years, during which time researchers observed a 55 percent increase in hip fractures amongst women who had discontinued HRT. Even more disconcerting was the steady decline of bone density each year for women who never returned to HRT.
It is also important to note that the WHI study used synthetic hormones, not bioidentical hormones, while each of the 2011 studies, analyzed data on women using both bioidentical and synthetic hormone therapy. Bioidentical hormones, unlike synthetic hormones, are designed to have the exact same molecular structure as the hormones produced naturally by the human body. The effects of the matching molecular structure make bioidentical hormones effective on multiple pathways inside the body as opposed to synthetic hormones which may have a positive effect in one part of the body, but a negative effect in another. This is why you do not observe unfortunate side effects, like breast cancer, with bioidentical hormones as you do with synthetic hormones.
In general, however, women can now take comfort in not only the effectiveness of HRT, but in the safety of this treatment option. These studies reveal that HRT does not increase the risk of heart disease, but actually lowers it. Additionally, halting HRT increases your risk of osteoporosis and hip fracture – ultimately, it negatively affects bone density. I like to keep my patients aware of studies that offer analysis of multiple long-term research projects such as these – it makes it easier for any woman to make a more informed decision about her health.