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Can HRT prevent Alzheimer’s in women?

Posted in Personal Health 20 Feb, 2013

Recognised as a treatment for post-menopausal women, it now seems that HRT (hormone replacement therapy) may offer other health benefits. According to The Independent, a new study has found that hormone replacement therapy can block signs of rapid aging, which may potentially be linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

HRT menopause treatment

Hormonal replacement therapy is given to postmenopausal women to reduce the common symptoms associated with the condition. During the menopause, a woman’s oestrogen levels fall significantly, producing such symptoms like vaginal dryness, mood swings, weight gain and hot flushes. HRT works by supplying the body with high levels of lost oestrogen and alleviating these uncomfortable symptoms to allow a woman’s body to function normally again. Thus HRT has proven to be an effective treatment for the menopause. So a new study, which suggests that HRT may provide additional health benefits, is somewhat revolutionary.

The study

The study was conducted in California, at Stanford University, where the findings were found in healthy women who were menopausal and carrying a recognised Alzheimer’s gene. Upon looking at the blood samples of women to distinguish the trademark of accelerated genetic aging, they discovered that HRT seemed to slow down the process for those women considered ‘at risk’ of the Alzheimer’s gene APOE4. In comparison to women who were not given HRT and thus showed signs of an accelerated aging process, those that were given treatment did not show such signs. As a result the research, which was published in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE, suggests that accelerated genetic or biological aging may be linked with Alzheimer’s in selected women.

The benefits of oestrogen

Telomeres, which protect DNA during the cell division process, shorten with each division and as such are used as indicators of age. The test involved studying samples from women between the ages of 45-65 - the common age for a woman to start the menopause - with one group remaining on the therapy while the other was taken off HRT. Women carrying the Alzheimer’s gene had telomeres that were six times more likely to have significant shortening over the last couple of years, in comparison to women who did not carry the gene. However, the inclusion of oestrogen via the hormonal replacement therapy prohibited the effect of the gene on the length of telomere. Furthermore, carriers of the Alzheimer’s gene APOE4 did not show any signs of quick telomere shortening whilst taking hormonal replacement therapy.

Helping us to understand Alzheimer’s

As the study was only done for a short time, the true results of using HRT and the extent to which it helps slow the aging process are not conclusive. Likewise, the study fails to confirm whether HRT can actually prevent Alzheimer’s disease. It also doesn’t provide enough information on how long HRT should be used and how hormonal replacement therapy might vary from women to women. For some women the inclusion of oestrogen can only be used for small amounts of a time due to the risks caused by too much oestrogen.

Likewise, the study fails to differentiate between the various types of HRT, and doesn’t acknowledge whether one type of HRT is more effective than another. However, although the study may have some limitations, I agree with Dr Simon Ridley from the charity Alzheimer's Research UK, that findings from the study could ‘provide a useful new lead for research in this complex area.’

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