Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
Women who started taking the drugs as they began menopause -- which typically
starts in the mid-40s and lasts through the mid-50s -- had a 30 percent lower
risk of heart disease than women who did not take them, the researchers found.
The findings contrast with those of a highly publicized 2002 study called the
Women's Health Initiative or WHI, which found HRT raised the risk of heart
attack, stroke, breast cancer and other serious conditions. After it came out,
millions of women stopped HRT and sought alternatives.
"It may help to untangle some of the confusion," said Dr. JoAnn
Manson of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, who
worked on both studies.
After the 2002 Women's Health Initiative was published, experts cautioned
women to only take HRT in the lowest possible doses and for the shortest
Sales of Wyeth's Premarin and the company's other female hormone replacement
drug, Prempro, fell dramatically and the company, the biggest maker of HRT,
announced plans to close at least one plant and to lay off sales staff.
But HRT remained popular in part because doctors had observed that women
taking the drugs were less likely to have heart disease over the long term.
Manson and others who worked on the WHI study noted the women in it were on
average 63 -- a decade past menopause.
They wondered what would happen with younger women, just entering menopause.
So they used data from the Nurses' Health Study, an ongoing study of 121,700
female nurses, age 30 to 55 when it started in 1976. Every two years these women
have filled out detailed questionnaires on their health, habits and medications.
When they died, their medical records were carefully added.
30 PERCENT LOWER RISK
The nurses' data showed that if women took HRT at younger ages, they had a 30
percent lower risk of heart disease than women the same age who did not take HRT.
"It does suggest that women who are good candidates for hormone therapy
because they are recently menopausal and having moderate to severe hot flashes
and are at low risk of heart disease may not need to be alarmed about the
(earlier) findings," Manson said in a telephone interview.
"The evidence is beginning to converge. But it is certainly not
conclusive. We don't want people running out and taking hormone therapy and
thinking it was going to protect their heart and that there are no risks
Writing in the Journal of Women's Health, Manson and colleagues stress that
more research is needed.
The 2002 findings have caused doctors to take a fresh look at menopause, and
many have criticized the idea that it is a medical condition that needs drug
Some studies suggest many symptoms attributed to menopause may be natural
consequences of aging, including reduced libido, higher risk of heart attack and
Other critics have suggested the formulation of HRT may be a factor. Women in
both the 2002 and the 2006 studies mostly took Premarin or Prempro, which are
made using pregnant horse urine.