February 15th, 2010
05:04 PM ET

Study backs some hormone therapy-heart disease link

By Jennifer Bixler
CNN Medical Executive Producer

To take hormones or not to take hormones: That is the question many women going through menopause ask themselves and their doctors. It’s been a topic of debate and discussion for years. Now a new study bolsters previous findings that women who received hormone therapy well into menopause may be at increased risk of heart disease.

A team lead by Harvard researcher Dr. Sengwee Darren Toh looked at over 16,000 post-menopausal women. The women were divided into two groups: One received estrogen plus progestin, one of the standard treatments for women going through menopause. The other group received a placebo. Toh and his team found that among women who began combined hormone therapy within a just few years of menopause, which is when women typically begin treatment, "There is no suggestion of a reduced risk of heart disease." But, he adds, "There is also no strong evidence to suggest a significantly increased risk of heart disease among these women either." Toh says that is primarily because their study sample for women who started therapy closer to menopause was small. "We just don't have enough women who were newly menopausal to get definite answers to this question."

However, the researchers did find that women who started combined hormone therapy a decade after menopause had an increased risk of heart disease.

The findings are published in the February 15th edition of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Why is this important? For decades, hormone replacement therapy has been used to alleviate hot flashes and night sweats, two of the main symptoms of menopause. Doctors also believed that boosting estrogen levels could stop heart disease. However, in recent years, hormone therapy has been mired in controversy. In 2002, the Women’s Health Initiative stopped its clinical trial after researchers found hormone therapy actually posed more risks than benefits.

So what does this mean for women “going through the change?” The bottom line, says Toh, consult your doctor and do what works for you. If combined hormone therapy helps with hot flashes, keep it up. The Food and Drug Administration says women who want to try combined hormone therapy should use the lowest dose for the shortest time possible.

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