Hormone therapy (HT) is widely provided for control of menopausal symptoms and has been used for the management and prevention of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and dementia in older women. This is an updated version of a Cochrane review first published in 2005.
To assess effects of long-term HT (at least 1 year's duration) on mortality, cardiovascular outcomes, cancer, gallbladder disease, fracture and cognition in perimenopausal and postmenopausal women during and after cessation of treatment.
We searched the following databases to September 2016: Cochrane Gynaecology and Fertility Group Trials Register, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, Embase and PsycINFO. We searched the registers of ongoing trials and reference lists provided in previous studies and systematic reviews.
We included randomised double-blinded studies of HT versus placebo, taken for at least 1 year by perimenopausal or postmenopausal women. HT included oestrogens, with or without progestogens, via the oral, transdermal, subcutaneous or intranasal route.
Two review authors independently selected studies, assessed risk of bias and extracted data. We calculated risk ratios (RRs) for dichotomous data and mean differences (MDs) for continuous data, along with 95% confidence intervals (CIs). We assessed the quality of the evidence by using GRADE methods.
We included 22 studies involving 43,637 women. We derived nearly 70% of the data from two well-conducted studies (HERS 1998; WHI 1998). Most participants were postmenopausal American women with at least some degree of comorbidity, and mean participant age in most studies was over 60 years. None of the studies focused on perimenopausal women.In relatively healthy postmenopausal women (i.e. generally fit, without overt disease), combined continuous HT increased the risk of a coronary event (after 1 year's use: from 2 per 1000 to between 3 and 7 per 1000), venous thromboembolism (after 1 year's use: from 2 per 1000 to between 4 and 11 per 1000), stroke (after 3 years' use: from 6 per 1000 to between 6 and 12 per 1000), breast cancer (after 5.6 years' use: from 19 per 1000 to between 20 and 30 per 1000), gallbladder disease (after 5.6 years' use: from 27 per 1000 to between 38 and 60 per 1000) and death from lung cancer (after 5.6 years' use plus 2.4 years' additional follow-up: from 5 per 1000 to between 6 and 13 per 1000).Oestrogen-only HT increased the risk of venous thromboembolism (after 1 to 2 years' use: from 2 per 1000 to 2 to 10 per 1000; after 7 years' use: from 16 per 1000 to 16 to 28 per 1000), stroke (after 7 years' use: from 24 per 1000 to between 25 and 40 per 1000) and gallbladder disease (after 7 years' use: from 27 per 1000 to between 38 and 60 per 1000) but reduced the risk of breast cancer (after 7 years' use: from 25 per 1000 to between 15 and 25 per 1000) and clinical fracture (after 7 years' use: from 141 per 1000 to between 92 and 113 per 1000) and did not increase the risk of coronary events at any follow-up time.Women over 65 years of age who were relatively healthy and taking continuous combined HT showed an increase in the incidence of dementia (after 4 years' use: from 9 per 1000 to 11 to 30 per 1000). Among women with cardiovascular disease, use of combined continuous HT significantly increased the risk of venous thromboembolism (at 1 year's use: from 3 per 1000 to between 3 and 29 per 1000). Women taking HT had a significantly decreased incidence of fracture with long-term use.Risk of fracture was the only outcome for which strong evidence showed clinical benefit derived from HT (after 5.6 years' use of combined HT: from 111 per 1000 to between 79 and 96 per 1000; after 7.1 years' use of oestrogen-only HT: from 141 per 1000 to between 92 and 113 per 1000). Researchers found no strong evidence that HT has a clinically meaningful impact on the incidence of colorectal cancer.One trial analysed subgroups of 2839 relatively healthy women 50 to 59 years of age who were taking combined continuous HT and 1637 who were taking oestrogen-only HT versus similar-sized placebo groups. The only significantly increased risk reported was for venous thromboembolism in women taking combined continuous HT: Their absolute risk remained low, at less than 1/500. However, other differences in risk cannot be excluded, as this study was not designed to have the power to detect differences between groups of women within 10 years of menopause.For most studies, risk of bias was low in most domains. The overall quality of evidence for the main comparisons was moderate. The main limitation in the quality of evidence was that only about 30% of women were 50 to 59 years old at baseline, which is the age at which women are most likely to consider HT for vasomotor symptoms.
Women with intolerable menopausal symptoms may wish to weigh the benefits of symptom relief against the small absolute risk of harm arising from short-term use of low-dose HT, provided they do not have specific contraindications. HT may be unsuitable for some women, including those at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, increased risk of thromboembolic disease (such as those with obesity or a history of venous thrombosis) or increased risk of some types of cancer (such as breast cancer, in women with a uterus). The risk of endometrial cancer among women with a uterus taking oestrogen-only HT is well documented.HT is not indicated for primary or secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease or dementia, nor for prevention of deterioration of cognitive function in postmenopausal women. Although HT is considered effective for the prevention of postmenopausal osteoporosis, it is generally recommended as an option only for women at significant risk for whom non-oestrogen therapies are unsuitable. Data are insufficient for assessment of the risk of long-term HT use in perimenopausal women and in postmenopausal women younger than 50 years of age.