Context: Over the past few decades hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has been used increasingly by post-menopausal women in western countries. The need for objective data on long-term effects prompted the setting up of randomised trials to compare cancer and cardiovascular disease endpoints in HRT users and non-users. With the early termination of part of the Women's Health Initiative trial (JAMA 2002; 288: 321-33), it is timely to review the evidence from such studies.
Starting point: Four randomised trials including over 20000 women followed up for 4.9 years, on average, have now reported on the effect of HRT for major, potentially fatal, conditions. Overall, HRT users had a significantly increased incidence of breast cancer, stroke, and pulmonary embolism; a significantly reduced incidence of colorectal cancer and fractured neck of femur; but no significant change in endometrial cancer or coronary heart disease.There was no significant variation across the trials in the results for any condition. Three trials had recruited women with previous cardiovascular disease and the fourth, the Women's Health Initiative, had recruited healthy women. Combined oestrogen/progestagen HRT was used in three trials and oestrogen alone in one. Use of HRT over a 5-year period by healthy postmenopausal women in western countries is estimated to cause an extra breast cancer,stroke, or pulmonary embolus in about 6 per 1000 users aged 50-59 and 12 per 1000 aged 60-69. Over the same period, the estimated reduction in incidence of colorectal cancer or fractured neck of femur is 1.7 per 1000 users aged 50-59 and 5.5 per 1000 aged 60-69. The increased incidence of any one of these conditions is greater than any reduction, the estimated net excess over 5 years being 1 per 230 users aged 50-59, and 1 per 150 aged 60-69.
Where next: Substantial new data should soon be available from randomised trials of oestrogen-alone HRT versus placebo, whereas few additional trial data on combined HRT are expected for about a decade. Existing randomised trials are too small to describe reliably the effect of HRT on important but rarer conditions, such as ovarian cancer, or on cause-specific mortality. Nor will they provide information about other types of oestrogen or progestagen. Answers to such questions will require judicious analysis and interpretation of data from observational studies.