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Hormone Therapies

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I’ve been having hot flashes, trouble sleeping, and other symptoms my doctor says are signs of menopause. I’ve heard menopausal hormone therapy might help, but also that it may be risky. What do I need to know?

Menopause is a natural process that happens as a woman gets older. The amount of estrogen and progesterone her body produces begins to fluctuate and then drop. Menopausal hormone therapy (MHT), once known as hormone replacement therapy, involves taking some of these hormones to keep symptoms of menopause — like hot flashes — under control.

Though MHT has been used for decades and praised for added health benefits like lowering a woman’s risk for osteoporosis and colorectal cancer, recent research
has uncovered a more complicated picture. Scientists now know it matters when and how long you take MHT. Studies have shown that for some women, using MHT might increase the risk for blood clots, heart attack, stroke, and breast cancer. For more on benefits and risks of MHT, talk to your doctor and visit the NIH website. If you and your doctor decide that menopausal hormone therapy is a good idea, the FDA recommends the smallest dose for the shortest time possible.

You may hear about “natural hormones” or “bio-identical hormones,” made by pharmacists and sometimes advertised as a “natural, safer alternative” to MHT. Be cautious. The FDA says there’s no credible scientific evidence to support the claims, or the safety or effectiveness of these products. For more information, visit the FDA website.

MHT isn’t the only type of hormone therapy. “Anti-aging” hormone therapies aimed at both men and women are based on the same idea — an otherwise healthy person taking a specific hormone that naturally declines with age. Supporters of these hormone therapies claim benefits like improved energy, strength, and immunity, an increase in muscle, and a decrease in fat. Examples include Human Growth Hormone (HGH), melatonin, Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), and testosterone. But while research on these hormones is ongoing, scientists don’t yet know what the effects may be. The National Institute on Aging warns that so far, studies haven’t proven any influence on the aging process, and each therapy may carry significant risks. To learn more, visit the NIA website and read “Can We Prevent Aging? Tips from the National Institute on Aging.”

For an overview of menopause, read “Menopause: Time for a Change” at www.nia.nih.gov.