Clinical Review

Hormone therapy and cognition: What is best for the midlife brain?

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Memory issues are a common source of concern for midlife women. ObGyns are in a unique position to advise women about the roles of menopause and vasomotor symptoms in cognitive function, help normalize the midlife cognitive experience, and help women maintain brain health into late life.



CASE HT for vasomotor symptoms in perimenopausal woman with cognitive concerns

Jackie is a 49-year-old woman. Her body mass index is 33 kg/m2, and she has mild hypertension that is effectively controlled with antihypertensive medications. Otherwise, she is in good health.During her annual gynecologic exam, she reports that for the past 9 months her menstrual cycles have not been as regular as they used to be and that 3 months ago she skipped a cycle. She is having bothersome vasomotor symptoms (VMS) and is concerned about her memory. She says she is forgetful at work and in social situations. During a recent presentation, she could not remember the name of one of her former clients. At a work happy hour, she forgot the name of her coworker’s husband, although she did remember it later after returning home.

Her mother has Alzheimer disease (AD), and Jackie worries about whether she, too, might be developing dementia and whether her memory will fail her in social situations.

She is concerned about using hormone therapy (HT) for her vasomotor symptoms because she has heard that it can lead to breast cancer and/or AD.

How would you advise her?

HT remains the most effective treatment for bothersome VMS, but concerns about its cognitive safety persist. Such concerns, and indeed a black-box warning about the risk of dementia with HT use, initially arose following the 2003 publication of the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study (WHIMS), a randomized, placebo-controlled trial of HT for the primary prevention of dementia in women aged 65 years and older at baseline.1 The study found that combination estrogen/progestin therapy was associated with a 2-fold increase in dementia when compared with placebo.

One of the critical questions arising even before WHIMS was whether the cognitive risks associated with HT that were seen in WHIMS apply to younger women. Attempting to answer the question and adding fuel to the fire are the results of a recent case-control study from Finland.2 This study compared HT use in Finnish women with and without AD and found that HT use was higher among Finnish women with AD compared with those without AD, regardless of age. The authors concluded, “Our data must be implemented into information for the present and future users of HT, even though the absolute risk increase is small.”

However, given the limitations inherent to observational and registry studies, and the contrasting findings of 3 high-quality, randomized controlled trials (RCTs; more details below), providers actually can reassure younger peri- and postmenopausal women about the cognitive safety of HT.3 They also can explain to patients that cognitive symptoms like the ones described in the case example are normal and provide general guidance to midlife women on how to optimize brain health.

Continue to: Closer look at WHI and RCT research pinpoints cognitively neutral HT...


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