Hormones Help Prevent Atherosclerosis

It is a confusing question for many postmenopausal women, whether or not to take estrogen replacement therapy. There are reported benefits and downfalls to the use of hormones. A new study finds women with high cholesterol levels may be able to prevent plaque build-up in their arteries if they take hormones.

University of Southern California researchers conducted a study to see whether hormone use prevents atherosclerosis in postmenopausal women who have never had heart disease or a stroke. Atherosclerosis is the narrowing of the arteries due to build up of fatty substances and cholesterol. Researchers included 222 women over age 45 in their study. All of the women had high levels of LDL cholesterol, or the bad cholesterol. A higher level of LDL cholesterol is believed to increase a person’s risk for heart disease.

Half of the women received estrogen replacement therapy while the other half received a placebo. Women with very high LDL cholesterol levels were also given cholesterol-lowering medication. Every six months for two years the women had ultrasound tests of major arteries in their neck. These tests measured the thickness of the inner part of the artery wall, which is where fat and cholesterol deposit.

Researchers found atherosclerosis progressed more slowly in the women on hormone use then in those given a placebo. However, they also report that the hormones did not seem to affect the progression of atherosclerosis for the women who were taking cholesterol-lowering medication.

Ninety-five percent of women who develop heart disease do so after menopause. Researchers say their study shows that estrogen therapy may be beneficial to women entering menopause by slowing the progression of atherosclerosis.

SOURCE: Annals of Internal Medicine, 2001

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