Cases in Menopause

When should a menopausal woman discontinue hormone therapy?

Author and Disclosure Information

Although this question is common in clinical practice, the answer isn’t clear-cut




My menopausal patient is a 57-year-old woman with a body mass index (BMI) of 21 kg/m2. Her mother, who also was slender, suffered a hip fracture at age 74.

When this patient was 53, approximately 8 months after her last menstrual period, she scheduled a problem visit to discuss bothersome hot flushes, which occurred primarily at night. These symptoms were associated with sleep disruption and irritability. At that problem visit, the patient and I discussed the benefits and risks of menopausal hormone therapy (HT), and she elected to initiate it, choosing transdermal estradiol using an 0.05-mg patch, combined with oral micronized progesterone 100-mg (one capsule) at bedtime. Two months later, she telephoned my office to report that she was experiencing only moderate relief of her symptoms. I increased the dose of estradiol to 0.075 mg. On her next well-woman visit, the patient remarked that her symptoms were largely resolved and said that she wished to continue the regimen.

Now, as she presents for her well-woman visit 3 years later, she asks how long she should continue the HT.

How would you counsel such a patient?

Although the duration of HT is still marked by controversy, clinicians often encounter the issue in practice. As the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) notes in a recent Practice Pearl and in its 2012 Position Statement on hormone therapy, the determination of the optimal duration of HT can be a challenge for clinicians and patients.1,2

In this article, I discuss indications for HT and consider variables that may influence its duration. I also offer practical guidance on therapeutic options for women who elect to use HT for an extended duration.

Moderate to severe vasomotor symptoms (VMS) are the most common indication for systemic combination estrogen-progestin or estrogen-only HT—and HT is the most effective treatment for VMS.2

Some experts have cautioned that “it remains prudent to keep the…duration of treatment short” or that HT “may serve a useful role in short-term symptom management.”3,4 However, for many menopausal women, VMS are a long-term concern. The Penn Ovarian Aging Study was conducted to estimate the duration of moderate-to-severe VMS and found a median duration of such symptoms of more than 10 years. In this landmark cohort study, the median duration of VMS, which began near the time of the menopausal transition, was almost 12 years.5

In a study of older menopausal women (mean age, 67 years; mean time since menopause, 19 years), 11.8% reported “clinically significant” hot flushes and “more than half of these women who complained of significant hot flushes at baseline continued to report bothersome symptoms after 3 years.”6

These observations underscore the fact that, in many women, short-term use (3–5 years) of HT will not be sufficient to control bothersome VMS.

The standard daily dose of HT (eg, conjugated equine estrogens [CEE], 0.625 mg; micronized estradiol, 1.0 mg; or transdermal estradiol, 0.05 mg) for relief of VMS also prevents osteoporosis,2 with many HT formulations approved for prevention of this condition. Randomized trial data from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) also have confirmed that a standard dose of HT prevents fractures in menopausal women.2

However, in menopausal women, doses of estrogen therapy substantially lower than those commonly used to treat VMS can still maintain or improve bone mineral density (BMD). For example, serum estradiol levels remain in the menopausal range during use of the weekly estradiol ultra-low-dose patch (0.014 mg).7 In a clinical trial of women (mean age, 66 years) with an intact uterus, use of this ultra-low-dose estradiol patch for 2 years without progestin did not increase the risk of endometrial hyperplasia7—although this patch does appear to increase the incidence of endometrial proliferation.8 For this reason, periodic endometrial monitoring may be appropriate in women using the 0.014-mg estradiol patch over the long term, including vaginal ultrasound assessment of endometrial thickness. Package labeling for this patch recommends that women with an intact uterus be given a progestogen for 14 days every 6 to 12 months.9

Related Article: Update on Osteoporosis Steven R. Goldstein, MD (December 2013)

Although the ultra-low-dose estradiol patch is approved for the prevention of osteoporosis, its efficacy in treating VMS is uncertain. For instance, in a study of this patch in women aged 60 to 80 years, with skeletal health and safety as the primary outcomes, 16% of participants reported VMS at baseline. The 0.014-mg estradiol patch did not reduce VMS more than placebo.10 However, in a trial of the 0.014-mg estradiol patch in which impact on VMS was the primary outcome, the ultra-low-dose patch did relieve VMS.11 (The ultra-low-dose patch currently is not approved to treat VMS.) Low-dose CEE (0.3 mg, 0.45 mg) and low-dose oral estradiol (0.5 mg) have been found to be effective in the treatment of VMS.12,13


Next Article:

Is one oral estrogen formulation safer than another for menopausal women?

Related Articles