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Thursday, 24 August, 2000, 23:10 GMT 00:10 UK
HRT 'could fight dementia'
HRT can be taken in pill form
Older women with high concentrations of a form of the female sex hormone oestrogen are less likely to suffer mental decline, say researchers.

The finding could mean that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) helps to boost mental functioning in post-menopausal women and to protect against dementia.

Some work has suggested that giving women extra oestrogen does help to prevent mental decline, but there are several studies which contradict this finding.

The fact that we found such a clear association supports the very important idea that oestrogen can protect against dementia

Dr Kristine Yaffe
The latest work, published in The Lancet medical journal, has been carried out by Dr Kristine Yaffe and colleagues from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

The researchers tested the impact of oestrogen levels on the mental function of 425 women aged 65 years or older.

They concentrated on forms of oestrogen that are known to be active in the brain.

They found that mental function declined in 5% of the 94 women classified as having high concentrations of these forms of oestrogen.

However, three times as many women classified as having low concentrations of the same hormones suffered a similar mental decline.

Other factors

Dr Yaffe told BBC News Online that previous researchers had suggested the apparent link between oestrogen and mental ability could be due to other characteristics about women who opt for HRT.

These women tend to be better educated, more interested in health and from the higher socio-economic classes - all factors thought to reduce the risk of dementia.

Dr Yaffe said: "The fact that we found such a clear association with serum levels of certain forms of oestrogen and protection against cognitive decline supports the very important idea that oestrogen can protect against dementia."

At present there are no effective ways to ward off dementia.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr Mary Tierney, an expert in geriatric research at the Sunnybrook And Women's College Health Sciences Center, Toronto, Canada, points out that the UCSF team did not use the most sensitive tests available.

The fact that they still uncovered a relationship, she said, suggests that the link between oestrogen and mental functioning is a strong one.

Dr Tierney told BBC News Online: "What is exciting about the findings is that they suggest that we may be able to target women who have low serum oestradiol levels for HRT.

"They also suggest that we may be able to prevent cognitive decline with lower doses of HRT, thus lowering the risk of breast cancer."

Research has shown that oestrogen plays a role in regulating several systems in the body connected to Alzheimer's disease.

However, the hormone has also been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.

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