At first, HRT was thought to decrease the risk of cancer, osteoporosis and heart disease. After a few more years of research, women around the world were shocked to hear the hormones that rid them from hot flashes and mood swings actually increased their risk of heart attack, stroke, and certain types of cancer.
Needless to say, hormone replacement therapy is still a hot research topic and as studies progress we are learning more about the potential risks and side effects.
Although negative feelings come to mind when hearing the words “side effects,” they are nothing more than “additional reactions” that may be caused by a therapy or medication. Now, researchers from the University of Michigan Health Systems appear to have found a very positive side effect of hormone replacement therapy: improved memory function.
A large number of women experience a loss in their memory function during and after menopause. Memory loss is a natural part of aging, but women on the menopause trail tend to lose their memory faster and in a shorter period of time and they go through rapid hormonal changes.
Going out shopping, and forgetting why you went out in the first place, can be really frustrating. You would be surprised how common it is for a woman of a certain age to suddenly find herself at a mall without being able to remember why she went there in the first place.
Memory loss related to these kinds of events has been linked to changes in the prefrontal cortex, a region in the brain responsible for memory function.
In this new study, ten women aged 50-60 years old were given hormone therapy or a placebo for four weeks. After the initial four weeks they received no treatment for a month and following that women who were previously taking hormones received the placebo for an additional four weeks, and visa versa.
The women were given a memory test and hooked up to an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine. The fMRI is able to “map” brain activity in real time and play it back on a screen. Researchers noted that women who were taking the hormone replacement therapy showed more brain activity in their prefrontal cortex. These findings suggest that women who use hormone replacement therapy for even relatively short periods of time could benefit in terms of memory function.
In fact, the prefrontal cortex is critical when processing information and going about daily activities that depend on short term memory, such as remembering what you needed from the grocery store.
If a short period of estrogen use could lead to a longer trip down memory lane, it could help develop new treatment options for at risk women. There may also not be a need to worry about the negative effects of hormone therapy: the increased risk of developing breast cancer and stroke are only associated with using hormones for years at a time.
Hormone therapy is like a fancy hat: right for some occasions, but certainly not “one size fits all.” Keeping this in mind, it is crucial to sit down with your doctor and go over the benefits and disadvantages if you are considering HRT. Based on your background and health, you can then create a treatment plan that fits your needs.
Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit AskDrManny.com.