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What Did the Study Show? 01 ( By TIME - Jul. 22. 2002 )

The Women's Health Initiative (WHI), begun in 1991 by the National Institutes of Health, is one of the largest studies of women's health ever undertaken. More than 160,000 post-menopausal women ages 50 to 79 were recruited into a variety of trials designed to find the best ways to prevent heart disease, breast and colorectal cancers, and osteoporosis. Thanks to the study's rigid design, most doctors view the WHI as the definitive word on women's health. Final results were due out--and eagerly awaited--in 2005. But one part of the study, involving more than 16,000 women, was halted last week. These women were taking a combination of estrogen and progestin called hormone-replacement therapy (HRT). Researchers concluded that the risks of HRT clearly outweighed the benefits (see table). Though HRT may still be appropriate as a short-term therapy for menopausal distress, women cannot expect it to protect them in the long term against aging-related diseases. Other parts of the giant WHI study, including a trial that looks at the effects of estrogen alone, continue. --By Alice Park

What Can I Do Instead? Hormone-replacement therapy is not the panacea it once appeared to be. But there are plenty of other ways for women to stay healthy well past menopause and to reduce their risk of heart attacks, osteoporosis and other ailments

HEART DISEASE Contrary to early studies on HRT, the WHI showed that the hormones do not protect against heart disease. In fact, they raise the risk. A low-fat diet and regular exercise several times a week are better bets. Lowering cholesterol is also important; if diet is not enough, drugs like statins can help bring cholesterol levels--and the risk of a heart attack--down.

--Bottom line: Forget HRT. Get to the gym, and watch your diet

OSTEOPOROSIS HRT does keep bones from becoming brittle and reduces the risk of fractures. But there are other ways to keep bones strong that do not carry the same risks. These include calcium supplements, drugs like the bisphosphonates and weight-bearing exercise. A newer class of estrogen-like drugs called SERMs (raloxifene is an example) is also showing promise in reducing fractures without raising the odds of breast cancers.

--Bottom line: Lift weights. Drink milk. Explore other medication options

COLON CANCER Colon-cancer rates in the WHI were lower in women taking HRT, but doctors don't feel that the protection against colon cancer outweighs the risk of breast cancer. Early detection of colon cancer is the best weapon against widespread disease; regular colon checkups are a good idea. Eating fruits and vegetables and exercising could also help.

--Bottom line: Eat more veggies, and stop putting off the colonoscopy

SKIN When estrogen levels plummet after menopause, skin cells lose their elasticity and youthful appearance. Hair can become dryer and thinner. Though HRT can combat these hallmark signs of aging, the hormones do so at a high price. Creams and moisturizers may not be as effective, but they won't pose any serious health risks. And there's an ever expanding array of cosmetic procedures.

--Bottom line: Plastic surgery, anybody? Or how about just aging gracefully?




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