National Consumers League

Women's Health Initiative: Ten years later


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Many older women’s lives are overcomplicated by difficult menopause symptoms, such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness, as well as other health issues that come with aging. For years, even healthy women who experienced no symptoms were encouraged to take hormone therapy (HT), and it quickly became the most common method of menopause symptom prevention. Ten years ago today, the National Women’s Health Network (NWHN) announced the results of a research study called the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI): hormone therapy increases the risks of breast and ovarian cancers. The announcement came after a decade of thorough research of some of the most common hormone therapy drugs available. Because of that monumental research, breast cancer rates decreased for the first time in history, according to the NWHN, “there are 160,000 women who were not diagnosed with breast cancer over the last 10 years because they avoided unnecessary exposure to drugs that would have caused it.” By questioning the mainstream medical treatment, which happened to financially benefit big pharmaceutical companies, WHI literally saved the lives of thousands of women. There is much to celebrate, but there is still much more work to be done. In the years after the WHI results, many other hormone therapy treatments were introduced onto the marketplace. Many of these have not been tested as thoroughly as the treatments used in the WHI study. It is too simplistic to dismiss all hormone therapy treatments as bad for women, but caution should be taken. As the NWHN writes, “Research on HT is an ongoing process. While the search for definitive answers about the long-term health effects of other forms of HT continues, the Network recommends that women consider menopause HT as a last resort for short-term symptom relief rather than a tool for long-term health maintenance.” The Mayo Clinic recommends hormone therapy for some women in small doses for hot flashes and vaginal dryness. It notes that “Long-term systemic hormone therapy for the prevention of postmenopausal conditions is no longer routinely recommended.” For consumers, navigating sometimes conflicting or changing information about health care and treatment options can often be overwhelming, which is why it’s so important to use reliable resources for information and maintain open dialogue with health care professionals. Important research such as the WHI study will continue to shed light on modern health care, but – when it comes down to it – the most useful tool for making good decisions is the relationship and communication between patients and their health care professionals.