Many of us heard about the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study and the decision to stop the study due to an increased risk of breast cancer and heart disease. Given the implications, it’s no wonder this has become a number one hot topic.
Of course, many of us are a little concerned! It’s tough not to be when you hear news stories saying, “Get off HRT now!” or words to that effect. The problem is, it can be difficult to get a handle on the actual findings.
• What exactly did the study find?
• And what does it mean for those of us with premature ovarian failure (POF) or early menopause?
It has gotten even more problematic as other studies following the WHI wound up with similar results; most notably among them the Million Woman Study in the U.K.
What Does The Study Mean For Those Of Us With An Early Menopause?
The main thing to keep in mind: these studies involve older menopausal woman, not women with premature ovarian failure (POF) or early menopause (EM). These women are extending their exposure to ovarian hormones. They aren’t literally replacing them up until the “normal” age of menopause, as we younger women on HRT are. It’s a decisive difference.
We have a different set of risk factors to begin with than older women.
Firstly, younger women in general have a lower risk of developing breast cancer in any given year – and having POF or EM actually makes our risk even lower (since lifetime estrogen exposure is linked to breast cancer risk). When we take hormone replacement, in effect we’re raising our risks back to that of our age group (1).
And the health consequences we face due to extended exposure to low estrogen levels are quite severe. Overall, it’s said that we younger women have almost a two-fold increase in mortality rate.
We have a two- to three-fold higher risk of developing heart disease; and the risk of rapid bone loss leading to osteoporosis (2).
So most doctors hold that we younger women are in a different boat when it comes to hormone replacement. In our case, one might say we’re replacing hormones that our bodies would otherwise “expect” to have until about age 50.
Given this, many doctors feel that the results of this study aren’t directly applicable to us.
However, it’s important to note that there is another school of thought among doctors who feel that the study does apply to women of any age. They contend that the risks of Prempro, the HRT studied (more specifically, of the progestin – Provera – in that HRT) are cumulative. Therefore, they argue, the increased risks do apply to any woman regardless of age, but dependent upon the length of time she is taking the Prempro.
Either way, it’s clear that this newest study is something we should know about – since it’s important for us all to make an educated decision about hormone replacement – whether that’s to start it, continue it or stop it.
Let’s try to make this a little easier to understand by looking at the key components of the study:
What Risks For This Form Of HRT Were Found?
The study found that women who took Prempro (not Premarin alone) had a 26% increase in the risk of developing breast cancer; 29% increased risk of heart attack; 41% increased risk of stroke; and double the risk of developing blood clots.
These were what’s considered “statistically significant” increases in risk, but in spite of how frightening it sounds when written as percentages, it’s actually really only a slightly increased risk in “absolute” terms. Only 2.5% of women in the estrogen plus progestin study had these health events.
To make things a little easier, here’s what the increased risk translates into in real terms.
It’s important to note that the WHI study authors stressed that this increase in risk shouldn’t be a cause for major alarm. The increase in risk applies to a population of women and is therefore of particular interest to public health policymakers and medical professionals.
It’s a bit of a different story for individuals. For example, on an individual basis, the increased risk in breast cancer amounts to less than a tenth of 1 percent per year.
That’s not to say we should just shrug off this study. There was an increase in certain diseases and conditions — and it’s important to be aware of them. After weighing up the evidence, the study authors concluded that the increase in risk was significant enough to warrant halting the study.
Initially, the estrogen-only arm of the study was continued. But in March 2004, this part of the study was also closed down. As the press release announcing this stated:
So estrogen alone (Premarin) did not affect breast cancer risk, but did appear to increase the risk of strokes.
What About Other Forms Of HRT?
This is where things are a little problematic… The study ONLY examined Prempro and Premarin.
Because the women on Premarin alone did NOT experience the same increase in breast cancer risk as those on the Prempro, it appears that the progestin component (the medroxyprogesterone acetate — aka Provera) may be the factor that increases the risks of cancer when taken in conjunction with the Premarin.
It’s possible — but not yet completely clear — that other forms of hormone replacement wouldn’t have the same negative effect as Prempro.
Most importantly, since the medroxyprogesterone acetate (Provera) in combination with the Premarin caused a rise in risk, some doctors believe that use of a prescription natural progesterone instead (such as Prometrium or a compounded progesterone) might not cause the increased cancer risks found in this study.
The problem is, there haven’t been any long term, large scale studies such as this one yet done looking specifically at the bioidentical forms of estrogen and progesterone.
Because of this, other studies that followed the WHI — as well as medical organizations — have opted for a “better safe than sorry” approach, stating that ALL forms of estrogen and progesterone replacement should be considered problematic where risk increases in breast cancer and strokes are concerned.
The overall consensus is a very simple one: women should consider using HRT only as long as necessary to deal with symptoms and medical problems as advised by their doctors. Some groups advocate using HRT only for up to 5 years. Others point to using as low a dose as possible. But all agree that you must look at your own health history and should confer with your doctor.
That said, it’s important to keep in mind that there are major differences between the different forms of HRT. For example, the patch doesn’t appear to increase your risk of gallbladder disease as oral forms of estrogen do, nor does it appear to raise triglyceride levels as oral forms do. And while there haven’t been long term studies, it’s believed that transdermal estrogen might be less of a risk factor for blood clots — since it doesn’t go directly to the liver in what’s called the “first pass”effect (3).
Provera is believed to block some of estrogen’s beneficial effects on cholesterol levels — more specifically its ability to raise HDL (the “good” cholesterol). Provera may also be linked to blood clots, while bioidentical micronized progesterone (such as Prometrium) doesn’t appear to have this effect.
Likewise, norethindrone acetate (a synthetic non-bioidentical progestin) differs from Provera since it may help to lower triglycerides. So it’s possible that using a bioidentical progesterone or even another progestin could make a substantial difference in the various health risks associated with HRT.
There’s also a theoretical possibility that switching to another regimen would make a difference risk-wise.
Instead of taking a progestin/progesterone every day (as with Prempro), taking it on a quarterly basis (to get a bleed every three months) or cyclically (getting a bleed every month) might make a difference. Again, however, there is no substantive data to back this up so finding the optimal plan for your needs will involve consultation and perhaps trial-and-error with your doctor.
What Implications Does The WHI Study Have For Younger Women?
Unfortunately, since the study did not include women who were younger than the normal age of menopause (approx. 51 years), we have to read between the lines.
In general, the consensus among most doctors seems to be that we younger women aren’t in the same situation as the “normal” menopausal woman that were studied.
While they’re extending their exposure to estrogen beyond their early 50s, we younger women are literally replacing estrogen that we’d otherwise have had if our ovaries functioned normally. So most doctors feel that this study doesn’t fully apply to younger women.
To my mind, one thing is very clear: what this study DOES mean for women with POF or EM is that, at the very least, when we reach the age of “normal” menopause — age 50 or so — we should carefully re-evaluate our need for HRT.
A careful decision can then be made to determine whether to continue on it, switch to a different form or lower dosage, or taper off of it and stop taking HRT altogether.
This is something that many doctors have recommended prior to this study and the study does confirm that this is a decision we should make carefully, with consideration given to our personal health history, family history and other factors. Its also a decision that, as always, should be made by working closely with your doctor.
So Now What?
First — and most important — don’t treat this as a cause for panic! It’s vital to remember that the women in the WHI study — and in all other studies of this sort — were older women, not younger women experiencing premature ovarian failure or early menopause.
We are in a very different situation. Much as a diabetic may replace the insulin her body is not producing on its own, we are replacing the ovarian hormones our ovaries aren’t producing enough of.
And, in truth, the level of hormones we’re replacing is actually lower than that which other women our age produce on their own. So the risks put forth in this study don’t necessarily fully capture the pros and cons relative to a younger woman’s decision to take HRT.
As mentioned earlier, however, some doctors do disagree with this and feel that this study does directly apply — and that, since the cumulative effect of Provera seems to be cause for concern, any woman — regardless of age — who is on Provera long term (over 5 years) should carefully consider the risks involved.
Frankly, it’s difficult to be sure who’s right in this case.
If you’re concerned, probably the best thing to do would be to talk this over with your doctor. With him/her you can assess your health risks and determine whether staying on HRT, switching your current HRT, or tapering off HRT would be best.
You might want to consider forms of HRT other than Prempro — perhaps a bioidentical form of estrogen (such as Estrace or the many patches available) and either natural micronized progesterone (such as Prometrium) or the progestin, norethindrone acetate; or bioidentical HRT from a compounding pharmacy.
Or you might talk with your doctor about taking the progesterone or progestin component of your HRT less frequently — instead of taking it every day, you could opt for a quarterly regimen, in which you take the progesterone or progestin every three months for a period of time.
This is not to say that HRT is necessarily the right thing for you. There are other options and strategies available when it comes to tackling symptoms — many of which are covered in great depth on our website. Phytoestrogens, dietary changes and lifestyle strategies are all potential methods of alleviating common, troublesome problems associated with menopause. As we consistently say here, “There’s no one-size-fits-all” answer.
Here’s a quick look at recent large-scale studies other than the WHI and their findings:
Here is some further hand-selected reading about the WHI and other studies:
• WHI HRT Update (This is the NHLBI report on the study – and it’s VERY good! Nice and easy to understand.
To read about the risks of breast cancer and HRT in the POF or EM woman:
• Breast Cancer and Early Menopause helpsheet.
To read about the risks of POF/EM caused by low hormone levels:
• Spontaneous Premature Ovarian Failure: Young Women, Special Needs (an overview article written by NIH Dr. Lawrence Nelson).