As a female GP in my mid forties, I increasingly see women with menopausal symptoms whose lives have been detrimentally affected by their symptoms. Many of my friends are also experiencing menopausal symptoms and are confused and often worried about the prospect of taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
I feel I have a very important role in my job of educating women about the menopause and HRT. It has been estimated that only around one in four women who would benefit from HRT actually take it. Many women are scared about taking HRT as they only hear negative reasons about taking it after talking to friends and reading articles about it.
So I would like to tell you some accurate facts about HRT. Many of the studies that newspapers quote are very old studies, which were badly designed and are therefore inaccurate. There have been many newer, more relevant studies published over recent years demonstrating numerous positive effects about HRT.
When I ask women know about the common menopausal symptoms they have or expect to have, they all mention hot flushes and night sweats. However, very few realise that tiredness, low mood, urinary symptoms, reduced libido (sex drive) and even joint pains can be related to their menopause. They also think that their symptoms will only last for a few months or maybe a year and then will improve when they have "gone through their menopause". However, symptoms can often last far longer than this - more than half of women still have symptoms seven years after their first hot flush.
So what is HRT good for?
HRT obviously improves all these menopausal symptoms. HRT also helps to strengthen your bones and reduce the risk of osteoporosis, which is very common in women as they get older. Taking HRT reduces your risk of heart attacks and stroke. Many women notice that taking HRT improves their mood, sleep and general quality of life. They also notice they think more clearly and generally have more energy. As lack of oestrogen can affect your hair and skin, taking HRT can result in your hair becoming thicker and skin being less dry and looking healthier.
The commonest reason why women are scared of taking HRT is the increased risk of breast cancer which is actually very small, if present. Some studies have not actually shown there is a link between taking HRT and breast cancer. At worst, the risks of HRT and breast cancer are similar to the risks of drinking two or three glasses of wine each night and are less than being very overweight or obese.
There is a very small risk of clots when taking HRT as tablets. However, taking oestrogen as a patch or gel does not increase the risk of clots.
I often initially give women HRT for a three months and most women return to see me feeling so much better and very happy! Many women just take HRT for a few years but I have many female patients who have taken HRT for many years as they want to continue having the benefits from taking it.
Obviously HRT is not the only answer for women reaching 50 years of age; regular exercise, reduction in caffeine and alcohol and improved diet (especially reducing refined carbohydrates) are beneficial and should be implemented.
So if you are experiencing any symptoms of the menopause you should go and see your doctor and consider taking HRT.
Dr Louise R. NewsonBSc(Hons) MRChB(Hons) MRCP FRCGP is a GP and menopause expert, based in Solihull, West Midlands, UK.
Follow her on twitter: @mymenopausedr