Hormone therapy may prove memorable

Hormone-replacement treatment appears to protect healthy older women from verbal-memory losses that typically accompany aging, a new study finds.

However, this estrogen and progesterone therapy confers no benefit to the women on tests of attention, visualizing items in space, and memory for pictures and quantities, according to a report in the February American Journal of Psychiatry.

Earlier investigations that asked whether hormone-replacement treatment boosts memory and thinking in healthy women after menopause yielded mixed results. In part, the confusion may result because women who elect to receive hormone therapy are often healthier and better educated than those who don’t. So, hormone recipients may start out with a cognitive advantage.

Psychologist Pauline M. Maki of the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore and her colleagues avoided this problem by studying only women who had comparably high levels of physical health, education, income, and verbal ability. The women, between 50 and 89 years old, all had been through menopause. The researchers gave cognitive tests to 81 women who had never received hormones and 103 women who had received estrogen-replacement therapy, sometimes with progesterone, for periods of 6 months to more than 20 years.

Women who had taken estrogen for 6 months to 1 year performed as well on a verbal-memory test as did those who had undergone much longer courses of therapy, Maki says. They all outperformed those with no hormone treatment.

Her team has now launched a 6-year study of memory and thinking skills among more than 2,000 healthy postmenopausal women, some of whom are receiving hormone therapy.

Scientists who pursue such research should avoid the stereotype of menopause as a deficiency that requires medical treatment, remarks psychiatrist Nada L. Stotland of Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago in an editorial accompanying the research report. Instead, menopause initiates a healthy developmental phase, she says. For tens of thousands of years, some women in hunter-gatherer groups performed vital roles into their seventies without hormone therapy, she points out.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.