Harvard Women's Health Watch

Revisiting hormone therapy's risks and benefits

A more nuanced picture may emerge as researchers re-examine data from the government's massive postmenopausal hormone trials.

Hormone therapy has long been the standard treatment for relieving menopausal symptoms: hot flashes, night sweats, and vaginal dryness. Until 2002, many clinicians were also recommending it long term to prevent chronic health problems, including heart disease, stroke, and osteoporosis. There was some evidence that estrogen might contribute to breast cancer, but except for women at especially high risk for that disease, cardiovascular disease was a more serious concern — a far greater cause of death and disability. For that reason, most health organizations recommended that postmenopausal women consider taking hormone therapy.

Then, in 2002, the hormonal approach to averting women's later-life ills screeched to a halt. Researchers had to stop the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) randomized trial of estrogen and progestin (in the form of Prempro) because the hormone combination was actually causing more heart attacks and strokes than a placebo, as well as more blood clots and breast cancer.

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