Women who take estrogen supplements to reduce the symptoms of menopause may gain an added benefit, new research suggests: a lowered risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease.
In the most convincing study ever to examine the link between estrogen and Alzheimer’s, women who took the hormone pills for as little as one year were significantly less likely to get the debilitating brain disease than were women who never took the supplements. The longer they took the estrogen, the lower their odds of getting Alzheimer’s.
“If you took it for 10 years, it came out to about a 30 to 40 percent reduction in risk,” said study leader Richard Mayeux of Columbia University in New York. “That is quite a substantial reduction.”
Experts said the findings, appearing in Saturday’s issue of the Lancet, a British medical journal, were not strong enough to warrant an immediate recommendation that most older women start taking the supplements. Among the possible side effects is a small increase in the risk of breast cancer.
But they said the work is sufficiently compelling to justify a large, federally sponsored clinical trial to settle the question of whether estrogen can help prevent the brain disease. Moreover, scientists said, ongoing efforts to see how the hormone may protect the brain could lead to the development of new Alzheimer’s drugs useful for women and men alike.
“The major risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s is age … and the over-85 age group is the fastest growing group in the United States,” said Neil Buckholtz, acting associate director of the Alzheimer’s program at the National Institute on Aging. “If we don’t do something soon then we’re going to be in real trouble.”
About 4 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s disease, a poorly understood neurological syndrome that gradually robs victims of their memories and eventually their ability to care for themselves. It has no known cause or cure and costs the nation an estimated $100 billion annually in health care expenses and lost productivity.
Estrogen is the primary female hormone, whose production in the ovaries tapers off with the onset of menopause. Approximately 25 percent of postmenopausal women in this country take estrogen replacement pills to reduce the immediate symptoms of menopause, such as hot flushes and insomnia, and many continue to do so for years.
A recent study confirmed that long-term estrogen replacement therapy reduces the risk of heart disease (the No.1 killer of women). It also lowers the risk of osteoporosis (age-related weakening of the bones), among other benefits.