PHILADELPHIA – It’s time to be clear about the benefits of hormone therapy for many women in midlife, JoAnn Pinkerton, MD, executive director of the North American Menopause Society, said during the keynote address at the group’s annual meeting.
“I want to take fear out of the conversation. Hormone therapy remains the most effective treatment for vasomotor symptoms and the genitourinary syndrome of menopause and has been shown to prevent bone loss and fracture,” said Dr. Pinkerton, who also chaired the advisory panel that penned the 2017 NAMS position statement on hormone therapy.
Hormone therapy is currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration as first-line therapy to relieve vasomotor symptoms (VMS). Low-dose vaginal estrogen therapy is also a first-line treatment for the genitourinary syndrome of menopause, since it can directly address vulvovaginal atrophy.
An additional approved indication for systemic hormone therapy (HT) is the prevention of bone loss and fracture reduction in postmenopausal women who have increased risk of osteoporosis or fractures. It’s also FDA approved for women who had hypogonadism, primary ovarian insufficiency, or premature surgical menopause, who may use HT until the average age of menopause – about 52 years.
Unopposed systemic estrogen should not be used as HT in women with an intact uterus because of the elevated risk of endometrial cancer, and all indications assume there are no contraindications to HT use.
The position statement was developed by an expert panel, and has been endorsed by a number of international menopause societies, other American women’s health societies, and the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.
Early analysis of cardiovascular health data from the large, prospective Women’s Health Initiative trial raised significant concerns about increased risk. But further study of data from the Women’s Health Initiative, as well as meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials, have yielded a more nuanced view of the relationship between HT and cardiovascular disease, she said.
“Age matters,” Dr. Pinkerton said. “Data show that there is reduced heart disease in women who start [hormone replacement] early.” There is increasing data, she said, to support the “timing hypothesis.”
“Women who start HT before the age of 60 years, or within 10 years of menopause, may have a reduced risk of coronary heart disease,” Dr. Pinkerton said. “There is concern of increased risk of [coronary heart disease] in women who initiate hormone therapy more than 10 or 20 years from menopause.”
Use of HT is associated with a significantly increased risk of venous thromboembolism, a risk that increases with time, as does the risk of stroke and pulmonary embolism. Using lower doses or transdermal HT may reduce this risk, but “the lack of comparative randomized controlled trial data limit recommendations,” she said.
Transdermal therapy can also be considered for women with metabolic syndrome, hypertriglyceridemia, and fatty liver, since this route avoids first-pass hepatic metabolism.
“The effect of hormone therapy on breast cancer risk is complex and conflicting,” said Dr Pinkerton, noting that breast cancer risk from HT may depend on many factors, including whether progestins are added to estrogen, the dose and duration of HT use, and how HT is administered.
Regarding the use of vaginal estrogen for women who have had breast cancer, Dr. Pinkerton said, “It’s a data-free zone.” Systemic absorption of vaginally-dosed estrogen is minimal, but the decision to use vaginal estrogen for a breast cancer survivor who is experiencing genitourinary syndrome of menopause symptoms should always be made in consultation with the woman’s oncologist and in shared decision-making with the patient herself, Dr. Pinkerton added.
“Unique concerns about safety surround the use of compounded bioidentical hormone therapy,” Dr. Pinkerton said.
The lack of regulation and monitoring, together with lax labeling requirements, are areas of concern. Accurate dosing may not be occurring, and data are lacking to support safety and efficacy of compounded bioidentical products, she said. Neither is there evidence to support routine testing of serum or salivary hormone levels, she added.
For isolated symptoms of genitourinary syndrome of menopause, low-dose vaginal preparations are safe and effective, Dr. Pinkerton said. For women who are symptomatic, use of either low-dose vaginal estrogen or systemic HT increases sexual function scores; however, she said, “hormone therapy is not recommended as the sole treatment of other sexual function problems,” such as diminished libido, though it can be a useful adjunct.
“Hormone therapy is the most effective treatment for hot flashes,” said Dr. Pinkerton, and using HT improves sleep quality and duration in women with bothersome nighttime hot flashes.
Data from the Women’s Health Initiative showed a highly significant 33% reduction in hip fractures for women using both estrogen alone and estrogen with progestogen. “That seems to get forgotten,” Dr. Pinkerton said. Though HT’s osteoporosis and fracture prevention effects stop when HT is discontinued, there’s no evidence of elevated fracture risk above baseline in women who have used HT and then stopped.
“Younger women may need higher doses to protect bone, but make sure you get adequate endometrial protection if you do that,” said Dr. Pinkerton, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Virginia.
“Hormone therapy is not recommended at any age to prevent or treat cognition or dementia,” said Dr. Pinkerton, citing a lack of data to support its use for these reasons. Observational data may show some reduction in risk of Alzheimer’s disease in women who use HT at younger ages or soon after menopause, she said.
Though HT users have a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes, diabetes prevention is not a Food and Drug Administration–approved indication for HT. Abdominal fat accumulation and weight gain may be reduced by HT as well, Dr. Pinkerton said.
Similarly, there are no data to support the use of HT for the treatment of clinical depression. Perimenopausal – but not postmenopausal – women may see some benefit from estrogen therapy; progestins may actually contribute to mood disturbance, she said.
“Systemic hormone therapy is not recommended for survivors of breast cancer,” Dr. Pinkerton said. Any consideration for systemic HT in this population should include the oncologist, and only be entertained after other nonhormonal options have been tried, she said.
Women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, or with the BRCA mutation, do not appear to have their risk increased by the use of HT, though the ovarian cancer data are limited and observational, Dr. Pinkerton said.
The NAMS position statement also addresses the use of HT in other special populations, including survivors of other cancers and women who have primary ovarian insufficiency or early menopause, BRCA-positive women who have undergone oophorectomy, and those over age 65 years.
“The recommendation to routinely discontinue systemic hormone therapy after age 65 is not supported by data,” Dr. Pinkerton said. “I would tell you that there’s a lack of good data about prolonged duration. What I tell patients is, we really are in another data-free zone.” She recommends an individualized approach that balances benefits and risks and includes ongoing surveillance.
“So what do I want us to do? I want us to change the message,” she said. Rather than advocating for HT to be used in “the lowest dose, for the shortest period of time,” she said the new message should be for women to use “appropriate hormone therapy to meet their treatment goals.”
The bottom line? After accounting for women who should avoid HT for specific contraindications, “benefits are likely to outweigh risks for symptomatic women who initiate hormone therapy when aged younger than 60 years and within 10 years of menopause,” Dr. Pinkerton said.
Dr. Pinkerton reported that she has received grant or research support from TherapeuticsMD.