Estrogen found to reduce risk of Alzheimer's Only 5.8% of women who took hormone got disease

August 16, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Taking estrogen after menopause may reduce a woman's risk of developing Alzheimer's or delay onset of the disease, scientists said yesterday.

In a study of 1,124 elderly women being published tomorrow in the Lancet, a British medical journal, and announced at a news conference at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan, researchers found that only 5.8 percent of women who had taken estrogen developed Alzheimer's, compared with 16.3 percent of women who had not used the hormone.

With each passing year of the five-year study, only 2.7 percent of the women who had used estrogen developed Alzheimer's as against 8.4 percent of those who had not used it. Moreover, the longer the women took estrogen, the lower their risk.

Black, white and Hispanic women benefited equally from estrogen, as did women with varying educational and socioeconomic levels.

The findings are potentially the most promising advance ever made toward the prevention of Alzheimer's disease, said Dr. Neil Buckholtz of the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Md. "This is the third study that's shown the same kind of effect."

Dr. Zaven Khachaturian, director of the Reagan Research Institute at the Alzheimer's Association, in Chicago, said, "This study opens new vistas."

Researchers are not sure how estrogen might protect against Alzheimer's, but studies have suggested that it helps support the growth, survival and repair of nerve cells, and that it can protect them from being injured by toxic substances.

The research might point the way toward other compounds that could delay or prevent Alzheimer's disease in men as well as women, he said.

Buckholtz and the scientists who conducted the study urged that further research be undertaken quickly to see if the findings could be verified.

"But we can't recommend that women take estrogen based on this study," Buckholtz said. "Estrogen does seem to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, but it may increase the risk of breast cancer. Each woman has to factor those into the risk-benefit decision she's going to make."

In the study, a team of researchers led by Dr. Richard Mayeux, a professor of neurology, psychiatry and public health at Columbia, interviewed the women and asked whether they had ever taken estrogen after menopause. Then, the researchers tracked the women's health over the next five years and recorded how many developed Alzheimer's.

The study showed a strong association between estrogen use and a lowered risk of Alzheimer's, but did not provide information about the most beneficial doses, how long it should be taken or the best formulation of estrogen.

In addition, because the researchers relied solely on the women's own memories of whether they had used estrogen, sometimes many years in the past, the figures may not be as reliable as those gathered in an experiment in which patients are tracked from the moment they begin taking a medication.

Mayeux and his colleagues hope to answer those questions in a controlled clinical trial, in which volunteer patients are assigned at random to groups that take either a known dose of estrogen or a placebo, a dummy drug.

Pub Date: 8/16/96

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