Harvard Women's Health Watch

In the journals: Average duration of hot flashes may be longer than previously thought

In the journals

Average duration of hot flashes may be longer than previously thought

Hot flashes — also known as vasomotor symptoms — affect up to 75% of women during the menopausal transition. For some women, these symptoms are no more than mildly annoying; for others, they can be extremely bothersome and may involve drenching sweats day and/or night, palpitations, anxiety, and confusion. Certain lifestyle measures may help — keeping the thermostat turned down, dressing in loose layers, drinking ice water, and avoiding hot or spicy foods, for example. But severe symptoms may require medication. The most effective treatment is hormone therapy (HT) — estrogen with or without a progestin. But in light of well-publicized health risks connected with certain hormone preparations, HT is currently prescribed at the lowest dose for the shortest period of time.

Deciding whether to start HT might be easier if women knew how long they were likely to be experiencing hot flashes. Current health information suggests that symptoms typically go on for six months to two years, but no investigation has actually lasted long enough to collect data on these symptoms — from start to finish — in a given cohort of women. Until now. An Australian study, published in the journal Menopause (May/June 2009), tracked women from premenopause through the menopausal transition and reported that hot flash duration averaged more than five years — well above previous estimates.

Investigators with the Melbourne Women's Midlife Health Project analyzed data from 438 women ages 45 to 55 who were still menstruating when the study began in 1991. Subjects were interviewed annually and completed health questionnaires, including questions about bothersome hot flashes. After 13 years of follow-up, the researchers found that hot flashes lasted, on average, 5.8 years in HT users and 5.2 years in nonusers. They also noted links between high exercise levels and shorter hot flash duration.

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