A new study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that women aged 50 to 55 who take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to alleviate menopause symptoms can expect neither benefit nor risk to their memory and thinking skills.
Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the study was done to assess more closely the effect of HRT on women during the years when menopause typically begins.
A previous study, the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study (WHIMS), followed women who took HRT at ages 65 and older. Researchers found evidence of declines in cognitive functioning, including memory, problem-solving and other thinking skills in study participants. They also found an increased risk for dementia.
The new study, the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study of Younger Women (WHIMSY), involved 1,168 postmenopausal women ages 50 to 55 who were divided into two randomized groups. Half the women took a commonly prescribed estrogen supplement and half took a placebo for an average of seven years.
According to a NIH new release, study participants underwent cognitive assessments seven years later. Researchers used phone interviews to measure specific cognitive functions – verbal memory, attention, executive function, verbal fluency and working memory – and found no meaningful difference in the average scores of the women who had taken HRT and those who had received a placebo.
“In contrast to findings in older postmenopausal women, this study tells women that taking these types of estrogen-based hormone therapies for a relatively short period of time in their early postmenopausal years may not put them at increased risk for cognitive decline over the long term,” said study co-author Susan Resnick, PhD, chief of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neuroscience, the National Institute of Aging’s Intramural Research Program, in the news release.
“Further, it is also important to note that we did not find any cognitive benefit after long-term follow-up,” said Resnick.
The message to younger postmenopausal women contemplating HRT is that it comes down to personal choice and a careful analysis of benefits and risks.
“For women 50 to 55, we can probably take cognition out of the equation when weighing risks and benefits,” Jennifer Leighdon Wu, MD, a gynecologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told HealthDay News.
“In the past, we used to think hormones would keep brains young and [help women] continue to have better brain function,” said Wu, who was not involved in the study but reviewed the findings. The new research suggests that HRT is not going to “preserve or worsen cognition,” added Wu.
The NIH recommends that women considering hormone therapy consult their physicians about how best to treat or prevent menopause symptoms.