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Alzheimer's disease and Oestrogen

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Recent research suggests a possible link between the hormone oestrogen and Alzheimer's disease in women. Alzheimer's disease is a common, progressive, degenerative disease of the brain. It is characterised by loss of memory and other cognitive functions.

menopause is a stage of life when a woman stops having periods and her body makes little oestrogen. When this occurs, women are often advised to take oestrogen as a part of a regimen of hormone replacement therapy.

What is the information for this topic? 
Research suggests a possible role for oestrogen in preventing Alzheimer's disease in women. Some research showed that women who took oestrogen after menopause were less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. It also suggested that Alzheimer's disease might occur later in life among women who take oestrogen. Women who have never taken oestrogen may have Alzheimer's disease at an earlier age. This research, however, was limited and of less-than-ideal quality.

Other research done with animals suggested that oestrogen may have the following effects:
  • prevent the death of some brain cells
  • lessen deposits of a material in the brain that affects brain cell function. These deposits may help cause Alzheimer's disease.
Some limited research has looked at using oestrogen to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease after they occur. However, one year of treatment had no effect on Alzheimer's disease. Currently, it appears that oestrogen cannot treat Alzheimer's disease after it develops.

Some large research studies are now investigating the following:
  • Can oestrogen truly can prevent Alzheimer's disease in women?
  • What is the best dose of oestrogen to use?
The final results will not be available for some time.

Any woman thinking about using oestrogen must remember that it has risks and benefits. Like any other medication, it has possible side effects. For example, oestrogen can increase the risk of cancer of the uterus if a woman has not had her uterus removed. This risk can be eliminated if a woman who still has her uterus takes a form of the hormone progesterone along with oestrogen.

Many experts advise women to take oestrogen after Menopause. For many women, the benefits are thought to outweigh the risks. Oestrogen therapy helps with symptoms of menopause, such as hot flushes and vaginal dryness. Oestrogen therapy also has the following important health benefits:
  • It can reduce the risk of the bone-thinning condition called osteoporosis and broken bones that can result from that disease.
  • It can improve cholesterol levels.
  • It may help ward off heart disease.
All women should discuss oestrogen use after menopause with their doctors to decide if the benefits outweigh the risks for them. New data about the risks and benefits are still being generated. Oestrogen may turn out to be a new tool to prevent Alzheimer's disease. At this time, though, not enough data supports its use to prevent or treat Alzheimer's disease.

Author: Adam Brochert, MD
Reviewer: eknowhow Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 26/10/2004
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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