CASE Healthy woman with hot flashes inquires about HT
A 54-year-old healthy woman with a history of hypothyroidism taking thyroid replacement medication comes in for her annual visit. Her last menstrual period was over 2 years ago and she reports severe hot flashes. They have greatly affected her quality of life and she must take frequent breaks at work. She wakes up frequently at night due to night sweats, which is impacting her sleep and, subsequently, her energy level. She has noted increased vaginal dryness so has been abstaining from sexual intercourse due to the discomfort. She has an intact uterus. Her family history is significant for heart disease, diagnosed in her mother at age 75.
On physical examination, she is normotensive and well-appearing. Her body mass index (BMI) is 21 kg/m2. Labs obtained prior to her visit show normal renal and liver function. Her high-density lipid (HDL) level is 55 mg/dL, her low-density lipid (LDL) level is 80 mg/dL, and her triglyceride level is 100 mg/dL; HbA1c is 5.5 mmol/mol.
She is interested in learning more about menopausal hormone therapy (HT) and whether or not she would be a candidate.
What information do you need to know to counsel and manage this patient?
Menopausal HT prescribing practices have changed over the last few decades as a better understanding of the risks and benefits of treatment have emerged. Prior to 2002, HT was commonly used for treatment of symptoms associated with menopause and was thought to have beneficial effects for chronic disease prevention.1-4 After data from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) was released, concerns arose around the effect of HT on cardiovascular health and risk of breast cancer. As a result, HT prescriptions fell precipitously after around 2002.5 Since then, postintervention analysis and cumulative 18-year follow-up of WHI data, along with results from subsequent randomized controlled trials, including the Kronos Early Estrogen Prevention Study (KEEPS) and the Early Versus Late Intervention Trial with Estradiol (ELITE), have demonstrated a favorable safety profile for healthy women starting HT early in menopause (less than age 60, or within 10 years from their final menstrual period).5-11
There are many types, formulations, and routes of HT, and the effects and risks differ for each (TABLE). For example, oral estrogen therapy, such as conjugated equine estrogens, portend a higher risk of adverse effects compared with transdermal formulations. Topical and transdermal estrogens bypass first-pass hepatic metabolism and thus are associated with a lower risk of venous thromboembolism (VTE) compared with oral formulations.12-14 A progestogen such as micronized progesterone is used in postmenopausal women with a uterus to protect the endometrium from unopposed estrogen therapy (ET). While it comes in oral and transdermal forms, the oral formulation is most widely used and studied in the United States; transdermal forms do not provide adequate endometrial protection and should not be used in combination therapy.15,16
Risks and benefits
Over time, the benefits and risks of HT use in menopausal patients have been further elucidated and defined, although they remain complex and dependent on patient clinical characteristics. HT remains the most effective treatment for vasomotor symptoms (VMS) and the genitourinary syndrome of menopause.17,18 In 2002, concerns for increased cardiovascular disease (CVD) and breast cancer risk resulted in early cessation of the WHI trial. Since that time the risk of CVD in postmenopausal women taking HT has been found to be more nuanced. In fact, updates in the literature have shown that HT results in a reduction of coronary heart disease if started in healthy women younger than age 60 years within 10 years of menopause.7,9-11 With this updated information, the North American Menopause society (NAMS), American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Endocrine Society have published guidelines supporting the initiation of HT for symptomatic healthy women: under the age of 60, within 10 years of menopause, and without contraindications. After age 60 years and further from menopause, the benefits and risks become less known.18-20
Risk stratification allows for more comprehensive counseling in use of HT for treatment of bothersome VMS. From a cardiovascular health standpoint, calculating an atherosclerotic CVD (ASCVD) risk score helps to evaluate appropriateness of HT prescribing:
- For those with low 10-year CVD risk (<5%), either oral or transdermal HT is appropriate.
- For those with moderate 10-year CVD risk (5%-10%), transdermal HT is recommended over oral HT.
- For those with high 10-year CVD risk (>10%), HT is not recommended.19,21
Breast cancer risk
Follow up since the initial WHI publication have shown that breast cancer risk is largely dependent on the formulation and route of HT used. Oral estrogen combined with a progestogen has been shown to increase the risk of invasive breast cancer, though very rarely.22 To put it into context, the absolute risk of breast cancer based on follow-up studies from WHI showed less than 1 additional case per 1,000 person years of use; less risk than associated with drinking 2 glasses of wine per day and similar to that of obesity and/or sedentary lifestyle.23,24 Studies have shown estrogen treatment alone for postmenopausal women does not appear to increase the risk of breast cancer. In fact, follow-up data from WHI showed a nonsignificant reduction in breast cancer risk for those taking ET alone.25
Breast cancer risk stratification is helpful when determining appropriateness of HT in postmenopausal women. Generally, if using risk stratification models for breast cancer (ie, Gail Risk model or international breast cancer intervention study [IBIS] tool), a patient who is average to moderate risk, HT can be offered with appropriate counseling. By contrast, a patient who is high risk should have a more detailed discussion about their risk (surveillance and risk-reducing treatments), and they may consider nonhormonal options for treatment of VMS. Women with a history of breast cancer should not be prescribed systemic HT.
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