Women should not be put off hormone replacement therapy by over-hyped fears about its health risks, a panel of international experts says. HRT is safe and effective for women aged 50 to 59 in the early years of the menopause, said the scientists. No cause for alarm

They found it alleviated menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and maintained healthy bones without significant harmful side effects.

Contrary to what many people had been led to believe, HRT did not raise the risk of heart disease for these women, and its impact on breast cancer was "minimal," the experts reported.

Although certain types of HRT containing combinations of estrogen and progesterone could slightly increase the chances of developing breast cancer, their effect was dwarfed by other risk factors.

Dr. David Sturdee, one of the report's authors and president-elect of the International Menopause Society, said doctors should be prescribing HRT more freely.

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