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Hormone Therapy Questions

An estimated 10 million women in the United States use combination hormone therapy products to treat symptoms of menopause, but some are choosing to bypass it in the wake of uncertainty about the treatment.

The Early Show in it's "Young at Heart" segment, asks the Society for Women's Health Research to clear up the confusion surrounding hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

Dr. Sherry Marts, a representative of the nonprofit group, tells The Early Show co-anchor Julie Chen that the FDA menopause information campaign sets the record straight on the benefits and risks of the therapy.

In the past, estrogen and progestin were touted for protecting postmenopausal women from heart disease and osteoporosis as well as soothing symptoms such as hot flashes and excessive perspiration. New studies, however, found a possible link between HRT and an increase in medical problems.

Marts explains, "The most recent studies have shown is there a slightly increased risk of developing breast cancer for women on hormone therapy. This is specifically the estrogen plus found in breast cancer. Heart disease incident goes up in the first 10 years of taking the hormones. Strokes and blood clots are two more risks and there is a slightly increased risk of gall bladder disease."

She says the best way to know if you should be on hormone replacement therapy is to speak with your physician or health-care provider.

"Review what your symptoms are, what the risks and benefits are for you personally, your family history of breast cancer may weigh in here, family history of heart disease, that sort of thing, so simply have that detailed conversation with a physician and make the decision together," Marts says.

For the women who have said they've been on HRT and suddenly their doctors take them off and they don't know why, Marts says the biggest concern is when hormone pills are taken to relieve the symptoms and they return. She says, "I think that might lead again to another conversation about possibly going back on the hormones."

Unfortunately, Mart notes HRT is the only thing available to relief of the symptoms of menopause. However she says, "For hot flashes and vaginal dryness, there are different formulations that can be used. Topical creams and rings that could be applied so there are some options there if you don't want to be taking hormone pills. Bone loss, there are other medications on the market that can prevent bone loss and those may be the first thing that women should try if they don't have other symptoms."

As for herbal supplements, she says they have not been tested as well as prescription drugs, so it is not clear whether they are effective.

What she advises women to do is to report the symptoms they are having. She says, "Again, reviewing the risks and benefits and asking your doctor whether or not the benefits outweigh the risks there. You want to be sure you're putting on the lowest dose possible to relieve the symptoms and stay on the dose for the shortest possible time."

Asked what the shortest possible time women can be on HRT without having any of the risks, Marts says, "It really depends on the individual women. For some women, hot flashes will clear up within a year or two, and for other women, it may be longer and simply trial and error at that point."

The overall message for women, Marts points out, is to take care of their bodies. She says healthy aging has to do with exercise and a good diet. She says, "Keep moving, eat right. Take care of yourself. Get all of the testing that folks recommend, including colon cancer screening and cervical cancer screening. I think the important message is after menopause, women still need to have an annual pap smear and mammogram."

She notes thought there has not been any studies that say exercise and a good diet can reduce hot flashes, but being in overall health does help.

She says, "I think one of the messages here is to pay attention to your own body. Talk honestly and frankly with your physician about what you're experiencing and make sure you have all of the information you need to make the right decisions."