Estrogen Therapy

Updated: Oct 19, 2016
  • Author: Linda M Szymanski, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: Richard Scott Lucidi, MD, FACOG  more...
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Overview

Overview

Estrogen therapy, with or without a progestogen (progesterone and progestin), has long been prescribed to treat menopausal symptoms. It has been extensively studied, and it is the most consistently effective therapy for vasomotor symptoms. [1] Data from numerous studies suggest that oral, transdermal, or vaginal hormone therapy reduces the severity of hot flashes by 65-90%. [2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10] The available data do not suggest that different types of estrogens (eg, conjugated estrogens vs estradiol) differ in efficacy. [5]

Estrogen, a steroid hormone, is derived from the androgenic precursors androstenedione and testosterone by means of aromatization. In order of potency, naturally occurring estrogens are 17 (beta)-estradiol (E2), estrone (E1), and estriol (E3). The synthesis and actions of these estrogens are complex.

In brief, these forms of estrogen can be summarized as follows:

  • Estradiol - Primarily produced by theca and granulosa cells of the ovary; it is the predominant form of estrogen found in premenopausal women
  • Estrone - Formed from estradiol in a reversible reaction; this is the predominant form of circulating estrogen after menopause; estrone is also a product of the peripheral conversion of androstenedione secreted by the adrenal cortex
  • Estriol - The estrogen the placenta secretes during pregnancy; in addition, it is the peripheral metabolite of estradiol and estrone; it is not secreted by the ovary [11]

Table 1 summarizes normal concentrations of the various estrogens.

Table 1. Production and Concentrations of Estrogens in Healthy Women [11] (Open Table in a new window)

Phase 17b-Estradiol Estrone Estriol
Serum



Concentration, pg/mL



Daily Production,



mg



Serum



Concentration, pg/mL



Daily



Production, mg



Serum



Concentration, pg/mL



Daily Production,



mg



Follicular 40-200 60-150 30-100 50-100 3-11 6-23
Preovulatory 250-500 200-400 50-200 200-350 - -
Luteal 100-150 150-300 50-115 120-250 6-16 12-30
Premenstrual 40-50 50-70 15-40 30-60 - -
Postmenstrual < 20 5-25 15-80 30-80 3-11 5-22

Estrogens affect many different systems, organs, and tissues, including the liver, bone, skin, gastrointestinal (GI) tract, breast, uterus, vasculature, and central nervous system (CNS). These effects appear to become most prominent during times of estrogen deficiency, such as the menopausal transition.

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Menopausal Transition

Menopause is defined as the permanent cessation of menstrual periods that occurs naturally or that follows surgery, chemotherapy, or irradiation. Natural menopause is recognized after a woman has not had menses for 12 consecutive months and after other pathologic or physiologic (eg, lactation) causes are ruled out. The median age of women undergoing menopause is 52 years. [1]

Symptoms of menopause

During the menopausal transition, a reduction in ovarian function results in a number of symptoms. Symptoms secondary to changes in ovarian hormones can be difficult to distinguish from those due to general aging and/or other life changes. [12, 1] Symptoms often attributed to estrogen deficiency are many and vary in intensity among women. Symptoms most commonly reported during the menopausal transition include vasomotor symptoms, such as hot flashes and night sweats, vaginal and vulvar dryness, and sleep disturbances.

The prevalence of vasomotor symptoms is 14-51% in premenopausal women, 35-50% in perimenopausal women, and 30-80% in postmenopausal women. [1] Most women have hot flashes for 6 months to 2 years. However, one study group reported that 26% of women had hot flashes for 6-10 years and that 10% had them for more than 10 years. [13]

According to the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN), the prevalence of vasomotor symptoms is highest among African-American women (46%), followed by Hispanic (34%), Caucasian (31%), Chinese (21%), and Japanese (18%) women. [14]

Other symptoms often attributed to menopause, but not necessarily well supported by data, include mood symptoms, cognitive disturbances, somatic symptoms, urinary incontinence, uterine bleeding problems, and sexual dysfunction. All of these may ultimately negatively affect the woman's overall quality of life.

Diseases occurring around the time of menopause

Menopause is also the time when the incidence and prevalence of other diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis, substantially increase. The effect of these conditions becomes important because women live long after menopause, and hormone status directly impacts disease progression and manifestation.

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Menopause and Hormone Therapy

Although decreasing estrogen levels alone do not cause all menopausal symptoms, estrogen—with or without progestogen (progesterone and progestin)—has been prescribed for many years to manage menopause. Estrogen was often prescribed to help alleviate symptoms of menopause, as well as to prevent cardiovascular disease (CVD) and osteoporosis.

Some have recommended that the term hormone replacement therapy (HRT) be changed to hormone therapy, to reflect the shift in focus from replacing hormones to using them for symptomatic relief. [1]

Preparations

Several preparations are available for hormone therapy. They include estrogen therapy alone or estrogen in combination with a progestogen (EPT). Unopposed estrogen increases the likelihood of endometrial hyperplasia and endometrial carcinoma. [15, 16] Prolonged use and, possibly, high doses are associated with increased risk of cancer.

When the effect of duration of use was evaluated, the relative risk (RR) ranged from 2.8 for 1-5 years of use to 9.5 for more than 10 years of use. [15] Therefore, the addition of progestogen is advised for endometrial protection in women with a uterus. The exception is when low-dose estrogen is locally administered to treat vaginal atrophy. [17, 18] Of note, no long-term safety data are available regarding use of unopposed, low-dose, local vaginal estrogen therapy.

Delivery systems

Preparations for estrogen therapy and EPT include oral, transdermal, injectable, and vaginal formulations. Transdermal delivery systems include patches, gels, sprays, and lotions, while vaginal products include suppositories, creams, and rings.

Because of the potential risks and existing controversies regarding high-dose oral regimens, the popularity of low-dose preparations and different delivery systems (eg, transdermal patches, gels, and lotions) is increasing. One vaginal preparation, the estradiol acetate ring, delivers a systemic dose of estradiol.

Nonoral preparations avoid a first-pass hepatic effect. Therefore, they may not produce changes in lipids, clotting factors, and inflammatory markers. As a result, they may possibly decrease health risks and adverse effects. Data have indicated that transdermal preparations, when compared with oral estrogen, are not associated with an increased risk of venous thromboembolism. [19]

EPT may be continuous (ie, daily administration of estrogen and progestogen) or continuous sequential (ie, daily administration of estrogen, with progestogen added on certain days).

A study by Fournier et al indicated that statin use can decrease the risk of venous thromboembolism in postmenopausal women on combined oral estrogen/progesterone therapy. The study, which involved 23,505 women with venous thromboembolism and 231,562 controls, found an association between current statin use and reduced risk of venous thromboembolism whether or not the patient was undergoing estrogen/progesterone therapy, with the odds ratio (OR) of venous thromboembolism being 0.98 in patients on both hormone therapy and statins. An elevated venous thromboembolism risk (OR, 1.55) was found in those on hormone therapy alone. [20]

See Tables 2-4 for summaries of the available preparations in the United States (adapted from North American Menopause Society [NAMS] data). [21] In addition to the preparations listed in the tables, an oral estrogen-testosterone product (Estratest, Estratest HS; Solvay Pharmaceuticals, Inc, Marietta, GA) is available in the United States but has not been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Table 2. Products for Estrogen Therapy (Open Table in a new window)

Oral Products
Composition Product Name Available



Doses, mg



Conjugated estrogens Premarin 0.3, 0.45, 0.625,



0.9, 1.25



Synthetic conjugated estrogens Cenestin 0.3, 0.45, 0.625,



0.9, 1.25



Enjuvia 0.3, 0.45, 0.625,



1.25



Esterified estrogens Menest 0.3, 0.625, 1.25,



2.5



17β-estradiol Estrace 0.5, 1.0, 2.0
Various generics 0.5, 1.0, 2.0
Estradiol



acetate



Femtrace 0.45, 0.9, 1.8
Estropipate (formerly piperazine



estrone sulfate)



Ortho-Est 0.625, 1.25, 2.5
Ogen 0.625, 1.25, 2.5



(0.75 mg estropipate =



0.625 mg estrone)



Transdermal and Topical Products
17β-Estradiol



Formulation



Product



Name



Estradiol



Delivery



Rate,



mg/day



Frequency
Matrix patch Alora 0.025, 0.05,



0.075, 0.1



Twice



weekly



Climara 0.025, 0.0375,



0.05, 0.075, 0.1



Once



weekly



Esclim 0.025, 0.0375,



0.05, 0.075, 0.1



Twice



weekly



Menostar 0.014 Once



weekly



Vivelle 0.025, 0.0375,



0.05, 0.075, 0.1



Twice



weekly



Vivelle-Dot 0.025, 0.0375,



0.05, 0.075, 0.1



Twice



weekly



Reservoir



patch



Estraderm 0.05, 0.1 Twice weekly
Transdermal



gel



EstroGel



0.06%



0.035 Daily,



metered pump



Elestrin



0.06%



0.0125 Daily,



metered pump



Divigel 0.1% 0.003, 0.009, 0.027



(available dose packets



0.25, 0.5, or 1.0g)



Daily
Topical



emulsion



Estrasorb 0.05 (3.48g/day) Daily
Transdermal



spray



Evamist (1.7%, metered dose) 1.53mg/spray Initial:



1 spray/day



Maintenance:



1-3



spray/day



Vaginal Products
Formulation Composition Product Name Dosing
Cream 17β-estradiol Estrace Initial:



2-4g/day for 1-2 wks



Maintenance:



1g 1-3 times/wk (1g = 0.1mg estradiol)



Conjugated estrogens Premarin Initial:



0.5–2g/day for 1-2 wk



Maintenance:



1-3 times/wk



(1g = 0.625mg estrogen)



Vaginal ring 17β-estradiol Estring Releases 7.5µg/day; 90 days
Estradiol acetate Femring



(systemic)



Releases 0.05mg/day or



0.10mg/day; 90 days



Vaginal tablet Estradiol hemihydrate Vagifem Tab containing 10.3 mcg estradiol hemihydrate = 10 mcg estradiol



Initial: 10 mcg tab intravaginally once daily for 2wk



Maintenance: 10 mcg tab intravaginally twice/wk (eg, Tues and Fri)



Table 3. Oral SERM/Estrogen Combination Products (Open Table in a new window)

Oral SERM/Estrogen Combination Products
Composition Product Name Available



Doses, mg



Bazedoxifene/conjugated estrogens Duavee 20/0.45

Table 4. Progestogens Used for Hormone Therapy (Open Table in a new window)

Route Drug, Formulation Composition Product Name Available



Doses,



mg



Oral Progestin, tablet Medroxyprogesterone acetate Provera, generics 2.5, 5, 10
Norethindrone Micronor, Nor-QD, generics 0.35
Norethindrone acetate Aygestin, generics 5
Norgestrel Ovrette 0.075
Megestrol acetate Megace, generics 20, 40
Progesterone, capsule Progesterone



in peanut oil,



micronized



Prometrium 100, 200
Intrauterine Progestin, system Levonorgestrel Mirena 20μg/day,



5y use



Vaginal Progesterone, gel Progesterone Prochieve 4% 45mg/ applicator
Crinone 4%, 8% 45 or 90mg/ applicator

Table 5. Estrogen–Progestogen Combination Products (Open Table in a new window)

Regimen Composition* Product Name Available



Doses &



Dosing*



Oral continuous cyclic Conjugated estrogens (E) + medroxyprogesterone acetate (P) Premphase 0.625mg E + 2.5 or 5.0mg P,



0.3 or 0.45mg E + 1.5mg P



Oral continuous combined Conjugated estrogens (E) + medroxyprogesterone acetate (P) Prempro 0.625mg E + 2.5 or 5.0mg P,



0.3 or 0.45mg E + 1.5mg P



Ethinyl estradiol (E) +



norethindrone acetate (P)



Femhrt 5µg E + 1mg P,



2.5µg E + 0.5mg P



17β-estradiol (E) +



norethindrone acetate (P)



Activella 1mg E + 0.5mg P,



0.5mg E + 0.1mg P



17β-estradiol (E) +



drospirenone (P)



Angeliq 1mg E + 0.5mg P
Oral intermittent combined 17β-estradiol (E) +



norgestimate (P)



Prefest 1mg E + 0.09mg P;



E alone for 3 days,



E + P for 3 days, repeat



Transdermal continuous combined 17β-estradiol (E) +



norethindrone acetate (P)



Combi-Patch 0.05mg E + 0.14mg P,



0.05mg E + 0.25mg P



Twice



weekly



17β-estradiol (E) +



levonorgestrel (P)



Climara Pro 0.045mg E + 0.015mg P Once



weekly



* E = estrogen component; P = progesterone component
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Hormone Therapy and Vasomotor Symptoms

As previously mentioned, estrogen therapy, with or without a progestogen, has long been prescribed to treat menopausal symptoms and is the most consistently effective therapy for vasomotor symptoms. [1] Numerous studies suggest that oral, transdermal, or vaginal hormone therapy reduces the severity of hot flashes by 65-90%. [2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10] The different types of estrogens (eg, conjugated estrogens vs estradiol) have not so far been found to differ in efficacy. [5]

In a review by Prior, oral micronized progesterone (OMP) appears to effectively treats vasomotor symptoms and sleep disturbances, and monotherapy is potentially safe for symptomatic menopause. [22]

High-dose versus low-dose therapy

Data also indicate that low-dose preparations are effective in reducing the severity and number of hot flashes compared with commonly prescribed doses, though a dose-response relationship may be observed (see the image below). [23] Low-dose estrogen is often considered to be 0.3mg or less of conjugated estrogen, 0.5mg or less of oral micronized estradiol, 2.5μg or less of ethinyl estradiol, or 25μg or less of transdermal estradiol.

Mean daily number of hot flashes by week for vario Mean daily number of hot flashes by week for various doses of conjugated estrogen (CEE) alone or combined with medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA). (Utian, 2001) A, Placebo and CEE groups; B, Placebo and CEE-MPA groups.Difference vs placebo was significant from weeks *2-12 or †3-12. ‡Difference between CEE 0.45mg/day and CEE 0.45mg/day7 with MPA 2.5mg/day was significant at weeks 3, 4, 5, and 9. §Difference between CEE 0.625 vs 0.45mg/day was significant from weeks 2-12. llDifference between CEE 0.625 and 0.3mg/day was significant at weeks 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, and 12.

Differences between high- and low-dose preparations tend to be greatest at 4 weeks after the start of hormone therapy and are reduced after 8-12 weeks. Low-dose preparations are desirable because they may be safer than high-dose forms in terms of cardiovascular disease (CVD), venous thromboembolism, stroke, and breast cancer. In addition, they also decrease unacceptable adverse effects, such as irregular bleeding and breast tenderness.

Women who are starting low-dose estrogen therapy should be counseled that it may take 8-12 weeks for their vasomotor symptoms to be relieved. [24, 25] If a low-dose estrogen is selected, a low dose of progestogen can also be prescribed. This reduction can be accomplished either by decreasing the daily dose or by increasing the interval between cycles. No current guidelines have been established. However, low doses of oral medroxyprogesterone acetate (ie, 1.5mg/day), when combined with low doses of oral conjugated estrogen (0.30-0.45mg/day), provide adequate endometrial protection. [26] Likewise, a low dose of norethisterone acetate (0.125mg/day), when combined with estradiol (0.025mg/day) in a transdermal preparation, also provides endometrial protection. [27]

Furthermore, if low-dose estrogens are used with cyclic progestogen regimens, intervals between progestogen use can be lengthened without significantly compromising endometrial protection. Examples of this approach include using medroxyprogesterone acetate 10mg/day for 14 days every 3 months [24] or every 6 months. [28]

The combination product of bazedoxifene, a SERM, and conjugated estrogens (CEs) was approved by the FDA in October 2013. Combining a SERM with CEs lowers the risk of uterine hyperplasia caused by estrogens. This eliminates the need for a progestin and its associated risks (eg, breast cancer, MI, VTE). This combination significantly reduced the number and severity of hot flashes at weeks 4 and 12 (P < 0.001). At week 12, bazedoxifene/CE reduced hot flashes from baseline by 74% (10.3 hot flashes [baseline] vs 2.8) compared with 51% (10.5 vs 5.4) for placebo. [29] Bazedoxifene/CE is FDA-approved for prevention of osteoporosis and treatment of vasomotor symptoms in postmenopausal women.

Nonhormonal therapy

For a variety of reasons, some women do not wish to take hormones and are more interested in herbal products. In comparisons of oral estrogen therapy (0.625mg of conjugated estrogen with or without medroxyprogesterone acetate 2.5mg/day) with a variety of herbal supplements, hormone therapy was the only treatment that reduced vasomotor symptoms. [30] Herbal formulations that have been shown to reduce symptoms with short-term use contain mostly black cohosh.

A study by Freeman et al found that the use of escitalopram (10-20mg/day), a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), can be a useful alternative to estrogen/progesterone; escitalopram reduces and alleviates more severe hot flashes. [31]

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Cardiovascular Disease Prevention

Results from epidemiologic studies in the 1980s and 1990s, such as the Nurses' Health Study, suggested that hormone therapy was protective against coronary heart disease (CHD) and related mortality. [32, 33] Data from retrospective studies also supported the notion that hormone therapy was cardioprotective. [34] Indeed, findings from a meta-analysis suggested that hormone therapy decreased the risk of CVD in women by 40-50%. [35] The conclusion from another meta-analysis was that hormone therapy should probably be recommended for women who have undergone a hysterectomy and for those with CHD or who are at high risk of CHD. [36]

In fact, the data regarding the multiple benefits of hormone therapy were so convincing that a 1998 American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) Educational Bulletin stated, "Hormone replacement therapy should be considered to relieve vasomotor symptoms, genital urinary tract atrophy, and mood and cognitive disturbances, as well as to prevent osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease." [37] Of note, the bulletin did mention that these perceived benefits must be assessed against the potential increased risk of breast cancer.

The mechanism thought to mediate this reduction in CVD is the beneficial effects on lipids and lipoproteins, particularly increased high-density-lipoprotein cholesterol, and decreased low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol concentrations. [38, 39] Also noted are reductions in fibrinogen, fasting glucose, and insulin levels, [38] as well as beneficial effects on arterial walls. [40] The effects of hormone therapy on hemostatic variables are complex, and the data are conflicting. [41]

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Hormone Therapy and Breast Cancer

The potential link between hormone therapy and breast cancer has been controversial for many years. Observational studies, reported primarily in the 1970-1990s, tended to show an increased risk of breast cancer among women who use hormone therapy. The findings have typically shown that EPT carries a greater risk than does estrogen therapy. Some studies have not demonstrated an increased risk with estrogen therapy. The increased risk tends to be associated with long use (ie, >5 years). [42]

Data from 51 epidemiologic studies revealed a significant increase in breast cancer with hormone therapy, with greatest increases observed with prolonged hormone therapy. [43] Women taking EPT or progestogen alone for more than 5 years had an RR of 1.15 compared with women who never received these treatments. Women who used 3 hormones for at least 5 years had an RR of 1.53. Among women taking estrogen alone, the risk of breast cancer increased only when duration of use was 5 years (RR, 1.34) or longer. Of interest, the increase in risk disappeared approximately 5 years after the cessation of hormone therapy.

Data from the Nurses’ Health Study revealed an increase in risk of breast cancer (RR, 1.77) among women who used estrogen plus testosterone compared with women who were never given hormone therapy. [44] In addition, the risk of breast cancer rose among recipients of EPT (RR, 1.58). Patients taking estrogen alone had a relatively low risk (RR, 1.15), though it was still greater than that of nonusers.

Results from the WHI have confirmed an increased risk of breast cancer in EPT users. The EPT arm of the WHI was initially halted early secondary to an increased risk of total and invasive breast cancers in the women taking EPT compared with placebo after slightly more than 5 years of use. It was determined that there were 8 additional cases of breast cancer for every 10,000 women over 1 year. For the invasive breast cancers in the EPT group, they were larger, more likely to be node positive, and diagnosed at a significantly more advanced stage compared with placebo. Although the trend was for increased in-situ breast cancers in the EPT group, it was not statistically significant. [45]

Women in the estrogen-alone arm of the WHI did not experience an increase in breast cancer after more than 7-year follow-up. [46] In fact, fewer breast cancers occurred in the women given estrogen therapy than in those given placebo. However, the difference was not statistically significant.

Mammographic breast-density increases in women taking hormone therapy. Although the biologic importance of this finding has not been established, mammographic abnormalities require additional medical evaluation. Abnormal mammograms among women participating in the WHI were noted within the first year of treatment. [45] Other investigators have also reported this finding. EPT slows the changes from a relatively dense pattern to the fatty pattern normally seen in women as they age. The effect of EPT is greater than that of estrogen therapy. [47] Transdermal EPT does not appear to increase breast density to the same degree that oral EPT does. [48]

Of interest, the Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) registries of the National Cancer Institute indicated a notable reduction of 6.7% in the incidence of breast cancer, particularly estrogen receptor–positive tumors, beginning in mid-2002. This timing corresponded to the WHI report of an increase in breast cancer with EPT; this report led to the discontinuation of hormone therapy in many women. [49] Some investigators suggested that this subsequent discontinuation of hormone therapy was what reduced the incidence of breast cancer. [50] Others, including the International Menopause Society, urged caution in linking these trends.

Genitourinary syndrome of menopause in breast cancer survivors

Breast cancer survivors (BCSs) may suffer genitourinary syndrome of menopause (GSM) (vaginal and urinary symptoms related to menopause) after receiving aromatase inhibitor therapy for hormone-dependent tumors. [51] BCSs are typically not candidates for conventional menopause therapies (eg, systemic hormonal therapy, vaginal estrogens at standard doses) and nonhormonal vaginal moisturizers/lubricants have limited use over the long term, newer management options have become available including the use of androgens, low-dose/ultra low-dose estrogens, or selective estrogenreceptor modulators, vaginal laser therapy, and psychosocial interventions. [51] Early detection and individually tailored treatment is vital for improving quality of life in women with GSM as well as for preventing the exacerbation of symptoms. [52]

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Hormone Therapy and Osteoporosis

Existing evidence largely supports the efficacy of hormone therapy in increasing bone mineral density and decreasing the risk of fracture. A meta-analysis of 22 randomized trials showed a significant reduction of 35% in nonvertebral fractures among women who began hormone therapy before the age of 60 years, with a possible attenuation of the benefit when hormone therapy is started after age 60 years. [53] The WHI investigators also reported significant decreases in the fracture risk with estrogen therapy and EPT. [54, 55]

In fact, all of the hormone therapy preparations are indicated for the prevention of osteoporosis. Ultralow doses of oral or transdermal estrogen have also been shown to increase bone mineral density and decrease bone turnover in postmenopausal women [56, 57] and are indicated for osteoporosis prevention. Data about fractures are not yet available.

The stance adopted by the ACOG is that the use of hormone therapy for osteoporosis prevention or treatment needs to be individualized and needs to include the woman’s need for treatment of vasomotor symptoms. Although other medications are available, such as bisphosphonates and selective estrogen receptor modulators, selected women with vasomotor symptoms may benefit from hormone therapy. [58]

The combination product of bazedoxifene, a SERM, and conjugated estrogens (CEs) was approved by the FDA in October 2013. Combining a SERM with CEs lowers the risk of uterine hyperplasia caused by estrogens. This eliminates the need for a progestin and its associated risks (eg, breast cancer, MI, VTE). In clinical trials, this combination decreased bone turnover and bone loss in postmenopausal women at risk for osteoporosis. Bone mineral density increased significantly more with all bazedoxifene/CE doses compared with placebo at the lumbar spine and total hip and with most bazedoxifene/CE doses compared with raloxifene at the lumbar spine. [59] Bazedoxifene/CE is FDA-approved for prevention of osteoporosis and treatment of vasomotor symptoms in postmenopausal women.

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Hormone Therapy, Cognition, and Quality of Life

Limited data have linked the menopausal transition to a variety of mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and irritability, as well as to decreased cognitive function. The WHIMS substudy of the WHI was designed to address the effects of hormone therapy on cognitive function. In addition, issues related to health-related quality of life were analyzed in the WHI.

Cognition

Observational studies and several randomized, controlled trials have provided limited evidence that hormone therapy positively affects cognition. [60] The WHIMS did not confirm these positive findings. [61, 62] No improvement in global cognitive function was observed in women using hormone therapy. In fact, the incidence of dementia and mild cognitive impairment increased among women taking hormone therapy. The increase was statistically significant only in the EPT group.

As with the findings for CVD, cognitive results differed in the WHI and other studies. As with CVD, some have hypothesized that hormone therapy may have been started at too late an age or too long after the onset of menopause to provide any benefit. Observations from animal and human studies support this critical-period hypothesis. [63] Therefore, additional data are needed to elucidate the effect of the timing of hormone therapy on cognitive function.

The latest analyses from the Women’s Health Initiative and other trials suggest that a window of time exists shortly after the onset of menopause, during which hormone therapy provides optimal benefit with minimal risk. Recent studies suggest that hormone therapy used in the early postmenopausal years has a neutral or even beneficial effect on cognition. [64]

Quality of life

Data about the effects of hormone therapy on health-related quality of life do not suggest a positive effect. The WHI data did indicate a significant improvement in the sleep-disturbance score with hormone therapy. [65, 66] However, no overall improvement was noted in health-related quality of life among women using hormone therapy.

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Other Benefits and Risks of Hormone Therapy

Hormone therapy may also improve the incidence of colorectal cancer. [54, 67] A continuation of the WHI Estrogen-Alone Trial followed postmenopausal women with prior hysterectomy for a median of 5.9 years. [68] Use of combined equine estrogens was not associated with an increase or a decrease in deep vein thrombosis, coronary heart disease, strokes, hip fractures, colon cancer, or total morbidity. A continued decreased risk of breast cancer was noted.

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Hormone Therapy After the WHI

Over the years, the number of prescriptions for hormone therapy has reflected scientific findings. In the 1970s, the number of prescriptions increased to approximately 30 million per year. This practice was likely due to data describing the cardioprotective effects of hormone therapy.

In the 1980s, reports of increased rates of endometrial cancer with unopposed estrogen lead to a decrease in annual prescriptions to about 15 million. Then, the addition of progestogen for endometrial protection renewed interest in hormone therapy, and prescriptions again increased.

Between 1995 and 2002, annual prescriptions peaked at about 91 million. Termination of the estrogen-progestin arm of the WHI in July 2002 and release of the HERS II data received considerable media attention and raised serious questions about the safety of hormone therapy in postmenopausal women. Many women stopped taking hormones and began to seek out alternative therapies. Prescriptions for hormone treatment immediately decreased. Of note, prescriptions for vaginal preparations did not change during this time. [49]

In a 2010 published study by the WHI, estrogen plus progestin therapy appeared to increase the risk of breast cancer mortality and incidence when compared with placebo. [69]

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Current Recommendations for Hormone Therapy

In response to the findings from the WHI, many health organizations revised their recommendations regarding hormone therapy. Although hormone therapy should not be used for disease prevention, it is still appropriate as a treatment to relieve menopausal symptoms and it should be individualized. [70] The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required labeling information to include the following statement: "Estrogens with or without progestins should be prescribed at the lowest effective doses and for the shortest duration consistent with treatment goals and risks for the individual woman." [71] ACOG, [58] NAMS, [18] and the US Preventive Services Task Force [72] echoed these same recommendations.

Additional data on the health-related effects of hormone therapy in postmenopausal women are obviously needed. Although the WHI provided important information, only 1 hormonal preparation was evaluated. Many other preparations are available, including formulations with substantially lowered doses and formulations with different delivery systems. Until more data are available, following the current recommendations is prudent.

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Bioidentical Hormone Therapy

Bioidentical hormones are plant-derived compounds that have the same chemical and molecular structure as those of hormones produced by the human body. Pharmacists can custom prepare and package (compound) bioidentical hormones according to a physician’s specifications.

After results of the WHI were reported in 2002, interest in bioidentical hormones increased because they have been promoted as a safer alternative to traditional hormone therapy, with the ability to tailor dosages of various estrogens. Although the existing studies on bioidentical hormones have not shown an increase in breast cancer, these studies have been too short in duration or methodologically flawed to show changes. These findings have unfortunately been interpreted as proof of safety rather than as inconclusive. This may be misleading to the public.

Thus, the primary disadvantages of bioidentical hormone therapy are that these preparations have not undergone rigorous clinical testing for safety or efficacy and that they are not regulated by the FDA. Therefore, in addition to safety questions, quality assurance is a concern. Issues include the purity, potency, and quality of the products. Because these products are not FDA regulated, their labeling does not need to include the warning the FDA now requires for traditional hormone therapy.

No evidence suggests that bioidentical hormone therapy is safer than regulated hormone therapy. Professional medical societies (eg, ACOG [73] , NAMS, The Endocrine Society [74] ) have published position statements regarding bioidentical hormones. These groups have expressed concerns regarding the lack of safety and efficacy data.

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