Hormone Replacement Therapy is safe, scientists have concluded, and one million women may have been suffering debilitating symptoms of menopause needlessly because of flawed reports linking it to cancer.An entire generation of women stopped taking HRT following studies in the early 2000s which suggested that the treatment raised the risk of heart disease and breast, ovarian and womb cancers. But new research, which followed women for a decade has found no evidence that HRT is linked to any life-threatening condition. It means that for more than a decade, a million post-menopausal women have been enduring hot flushes, night sweats, depression and increased risk of osteoporosis for no reason. Dr Lila Nachtigall, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at New York University, said it was a "shame" that there had been a "huge drop" in the number of women taking HRT following health scares. "We found women taking HRT over a long period of time to be in very good health," she said.
"It's now clear that women on HRT over many years can enjoy benefits. The risks of HRT have definitely been overstated. The benefits outweigh the risks."
HRT, which boosts levels of the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone, was developed in the 1940s and was first made available to women in Britain in 1965. However by the mid 1990s concern was growing about the drugs and two large studies were launched, one in the US and one in Britain.
In 2003 the British Millennium Women Study published its findings claiming that HRT raised the risk of cancer. Many doctors immediately withdrew prescriptions while the Medical Healthcare and Regulatory Agency (MHRA) issued new guidance recommending all women be given the 'lowest effective dose should be used for the shortest time.'
Within four years the number of women taking the hormones had plummeted from two million to one million. Although later studies cast doubt on the original findings, and Danish research found HRT may even lower the risk of heart disease, the numbers of women taking the drugs never recovered.
The new study by New York University school of medicine tracked 80 women using hormone replacement for 10 years and compared them with a control group who were not using the medication. The HRT group suffered no more incidences of cancer, diabetes or heart disease than the control group.
Health experts in Britain said that many doctors were still confused by the research and were frightened to recommend HRT despite the wide benefits. Many women suffering symptoms are currently prescribed anti-depressants.
Professor John Studd, consultant gynaecologist at the London PMS and Menopause Clinic, said: "The problem is that most GPs are frightened of HRT – they will have learned as medical students that it is linked to health risks, and it sticks in their minds.
"But those studies that were replicated in the textbooks were worthless – they were completely rubbish. They collected the data all wrong.
"HRT has huge benefits in terms of relief of menopausal symptoms – there is less depression and women feel better."
A separate poll released today by HRT makers Mylan revealed that 85 per cent of women who could benefit from the treatment are not taking them, one in four because of health fears.
Dr Sarah Gray, a Cornwall GP and women’s health specialist, added: "Women are currently reluctant to seek help for their daily symptoms due to confusion over the role and safety of HRT. "This means that many women may be unnecessarily experiencing symptoms that are impairing their quality of life on a daily basis. "Women need to know about the available options, their risks and benefits and be empowered to become part of the decision-making process. "In the past, many menopausal women with low moods have turned to anti-depressants or anxiety medication, when an effective alternative might be HRT."
Nick Panay, consultant gynaecologist at Queen Charlotte's & Chelsea and Chelsea & Westminster Hospitals, said: "We believe that the tide is turning. "There were certain risks shown by the WHI (Women’s Health Initiative) study, but observational studies before that and other studies since have been much more reassuring. It seems that the problem with the WHI study was that the HRT doses used were too high and many women were well beyond the average age of menopause at 51.
"We believe that the right HRT preparation, in the right woman, has low overall risks and has significant benefits.
"Too many women are being denied hormone therapy that might benefit from it. Where there are risk factors, it is about properly risk assessing women on an individual basis."Menopause should be taken seriously and women should be given the opportunity to use hormone therapy when appropriate to do so."
Nice is planning to launch the first guidelines into the treatment of the menopause in November. The new research was published at the ASRM annual meeting in Baltimore.