Estrogen therapy not only does not protect women age 65 and older against Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia, as scientists once hoped, but it might slightly hasten senility, according to the results of a study of women's health.
These results, reported today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, could end scientists' hopes for estrogen replacement therapy in older women. The treatment, once thought to reduce many of the ravages of age, such as strokes and dementia, seems to enhance those problems.
The results mirror those reported last year from a study of the more widely used combination of estrogen and progestin. For the new report, researchers studied 2,947 women, ages 65 to 79, for eight years. Half were taking estrogen.
The team found that 28 of those women developed dementia, compared with 19 of those who were not taking the hormone. The researchers found that troubling but noted that the numbers were too small to be statistically significant.
Dementia is uncommon, so the overall risk for the condition is low even though the risk is higher for women on hormones. Stephen R. Rapp, a project investigator from Wake Forest University, said that extrapolating from the study, estrogen might cause 12 new cases of dementia per 10,000 women each year.
Despite the findings of the research, called the Women's Health Initiative Memory Study, hormone replacement therapy is still safe for treating menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes in younger women, but the drugs should be taken in low doses for the shortest time possible, Rapp said.
Some doctors still think the therapy protects younger women if it is started during menopause, before any age-related brain damage.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.