Doctors treat being female as sickness needing cure

Friday, June 20, 2003 at 1:00am

Now it's dementia. It turns out that the magic hormones that were supposed to stave off the effects of aging on women actually speed up the scariest part of growing old: the possibility of losing your senses.

Despite studies showing that hormone replacement "therapy" (HRT) increases the risks for breast cancer, heart disease, stroke and blood clots, many women held out hope that HRT at least shielded the mind. Following their doctors' advice, millions of American women took the hormones. How could so many doctors have been so wrong?

The drug company that makes the most popular of the estrogen and estrogen-plus-progesterone pills, Wyeth, recently started an advertising campaign in newspapers around the country aimed at convincing some women that the hormones are still good for them. The main selling point: The pills ease the symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes and night sweats. But are those benefits worth the risk?

To Wyeth it's crucial women continue to answer that question affirmatively. Last year, despite some earlier studies showing a possible link between hormones and breast cancer, HRT for menopausal women was still, pardon the expression, a cash cow for the drug company. But when the government-sponsored Women's Health Initiative found that HRT not only did not reduce the risks of heart attack and stroke but rather increased them, sales of the hormones fell dramatically.

Hoping that the hormones could still be shown to ward off dementia, Wyeth funded the study to test that thesis. What the researchers found

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