Don't panic: Rethink

July 12, 2002

PHONES ARE ringing off the hook at doctors' offices throughout the nation as women hear the latest news from the menopause front.

For years, they'd been told that taking drugs to replace the hormones that disappear with age would help them feel better, stay healthier and maybe live longer. Now they learn that for some women those pills may be doing more harm than good.

So, what should they do?

The answer seems to be: Don't panic. But women taking the drugs should carefully re-evaluate their own risk and reward factors.

Findings from the federal study of women's health that upended conventional wisdom this week indicated that long-term use of the replacement hormones estrogen and progestin significantly increase the likelihood of heart disease, stroke, blood clots and breast cancer.

This increased peril was offset by protections against bone loss and colon cancer that government scientists deemed such a poor trade-off they halted the study early.

But that doesn't mean no one should take these drugs. They can provide blessed relief to women who suffer from hot flashes, sleeplessness and other menopausal symptoms. Taken on a short-term basis, the hormones pose only a small risk to each individual woman.

If preventing bone loss and fractures is a top priority, some women may choose to take their chances with longer-term hormone use.

Estrogen alone may still be a good option for women who have had hysterectomies; a separate study of the long-term effects of that therapy continues. But the broader message here is a familiar one: There's no easy way to beat the system.

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