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Hormone therapy blocks accelerated biological aging in women with Alzheimer’s risk factor

February 15, 2013
by Patricia Sheehan, Editor-in-Chief
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Healthy menopausal women carrying a well-known genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease showed measurable signs of accelerated biological aging, a new study has found.

However, in carriers who started hormone therapy at menopause and remained on that therapy, this acceleration was absent, the researchers said. Hormone therapy for non-carriers of the risk factor, a gene variant called ApoE4, had no protective effect on their biological aging.

“This shows that ApoE4 is contributing to aging at the cellular level well before any outward symptoms of decline become apparent,” said Natalie Rasgon, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, in a press release statement. “Yet, estrogen appears to have a protective effect for middle-aged women who are carrying this genetic risk factor.”

Rasgon is the senior author of a study involving 70 relatively well-educated, high-functioning women. It was published online February 13 in PLOS ONE.

“Our take-home findings from this study were, first, that ApoE4 carriers are at greater risk of biological aging, which is associated with negative health outcomes and, second, that if you were a postmenopausal ApoE4 carrier, being on estrogen therapy was a good thing for telomere length, an established measure of biological aging at the cellular level,” Rasgon said. “This brings us a step closer to being able to identify which women will benefit the most from estrogen replacement therapy.”

In 2002, one arm of a large-scale longitudinal trial of women examining hormone therapy was halted due to an unexpected increase in adverse cardiovascular events among women on the therapy. The ensuing publicity resulted in women abandoning the regimen in droves. But the trial subjects among whom these ill effects occurred were women who had begun estrogen treatment years after reaching menopause. Subsequent studies have demonstrated that women who start treatment at menopause or soon afterward may experience some benefit.

Rasgon noted that in addition to timing and ApoE status, the type of estrogen formulation used may prove to be an important determinant of hormone therapy’s health impact. She said she expects to publish other work soon concerning the differential effects of different formulations.

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