Healthy Dose: Can Midlife Use of Hormones Reduce Dementia Risk?

The aforementioned large study from Kaiser found that there just may be a window of opportunity to begin hormones. Researchers tracked all their female patients from midlife on during the 1960s and 1970s. They took note of every woman who started hormones at midlife and followed them to see how many would develop dementia. They found that women who began hormones early in menopause had a 24 percent reduced risk of developing dementia.

The researchers next tracked pharmacy records of all their female patients from age 65 and over, noting who began hormones at this much later date. Over the ensuing years they found that women who began hormones later in life had a remarkable 46 percent increased risk of dementia. All forms of dementia were counted, including Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia.

Why do hormones help protect younger brains and harm older brains? No one knows for certain, but a recurring theme at the Alzheimer's conference this week emphasized that the earlier we begin caring for our brains, the better. It simply may be too late to change the course of aging brains and Alzheimer's disease if we start treatments long after the damage is done.

Estrogen researchers believe that the active form of estrogen, estradiol, has protective effects on the brain whereas the synthetic progestin, medroxyprogesterone, may somehow interfere with this good effect. So a second hormone study presented at the meetings tested estradiol at a 1.0 mg standard dose along with another progestin, and found some intriguing (but early) results.

Women who took hormones who had excellent memory at the start of the study had continued good memory throughout. However women with slower memory on a test called the delayed verbal recall test actually had worsening memory when they used hormones. According to the researcher, "It was almost like estrogen helped preserve brain function in the healthy women and failed to protect the brain function in less healthy brains."

We may also be able to prevent these age-related diseases by boosting brain power and function through diet, exercise of both the brain (did you know that obsessing is good for your brain and body?), a touch of caffeine, and maybe even vitamins such as omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.

The latest headlines are yet another reminder that no "one-size-fits-all" solutions apply for all women.

If you are young and considering hormones, talk to your doctor about taking: the lowest possible dose of natural estrogen, the skin patch form that bypasses the liver, and a natural form of progesterone such as micronized progesterone capsule or vaginal insert rather than the synthetic progestin's (you only need progesterone if you have a uterus and need to protect it from estrogen buildup of the lining every month or so for about 10 to 12 days total).

I will be writing about hormones whenever something comes out in the news. Millions of baby boomers (such as me) demand information and answers to the hormone dilemma so we can make the best decisions to preserve our health.

In the weeks to come, I will also fill you in about some of the other exciting research presented at the International Conference on Alzheimer's disease in Chicago.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions to this very confusing matter.

Dr. Marie Savard is an ABC News medical contributor. Savard's book, "How to Save Your Own Life," and her entire system is available on her Web site at www.DrSavard.com.

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