Women who use hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to treat the menopause can look forward to substantially longer lives, according to a new study.
Doctors in the US have discovered a 46 per cent drop in death rates among women who take the oestrogen-replacement pill, largely because of the protection it provides against heart attacks and strokes.
The report, in the latest edition of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, evaluated the medical history of 454 women in Oakland, California, born between 1900 and 1915 and compared the fortunes of those who started oestrogen HRT and those who did not.
About half the group - 232 - used oestrogen therapy for at least a year starting in 1969 and an age-matched group of 222 were non-users. Among those women who did not use HRT there were 87 deaths from all causes. Among the HRT users, there were 53 deaths.
"The overall benefit of long-term oestrogen use is large and positive," the study found, noting that women who use this "relatively inexpensive drug can substantially reduce their overall risk of dying prematurely".
Overall mortality rate for users was 46 per cent below that of non-users, said Dr Bruce Ettinger, lead author of the research, and most of the benefit was connected to preventing heart attack and stroke, the leading killers of women.
For coronary heart disease, HRT users had a 60 per cent reduction in mortality risk. For other cardiovascular problems, such as stroke, the HRT users had a 73 per cent reduction in mortality. The study also compared the death rate from cancer and from all other causes, and Dr Ettinger said: "There was no statistically significant difference."
There was a slightly higher rate of breast cancer death among oestrogen users, he said, but this was statistically offset by a slightly lower rate of death from lung cancer.
"What is unique about this study is that it is a long-term observational examination of two groups that are closely matched," Dr Ettinger said.
Oestrogen-users in the study started taking the hormone before it was known that the drug had any major health benefits, Dr Ettinger said. "They were taking the drug back then to treat hot flushes caused by menopause," he said. Only later did doctors begin to recognise that oestrogen had other medical benefits.
Now the hormone is being prescribed to treat or prevent a variety of conditions, including osteoporosis, a bone- thinning disorder.
In the past the use of HRT has been controversial with claims that it could cause breast cancer. But most doctors believe that HRT's benefits outweigh the risks, as it also stops extreme mood swings, depression, blackouts and memory loss.
Famous users of HRT include Baroness Thatcher, Teresa Gorman MP, and the actresses Joan Collins and Kate O'Mara.
The Labour MP Alice Mahon said it was an "exciting development" and called for the Commons Health Select Committee to look into the findings.
Joan Jenkins, founder president of the charity Women's Health Concern, said: "Too few women are taking HRT. Only 10 per cent of eligible women who are oestrogen deficient are taking it and more women need to be told of its benefits."