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Heart Attack (cont.)

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How is heart attack in women treated?

Thrombolytic (fibrinolytic or clot dissolving) therapy has been shown to reduce death from heart attacks similarly in men and women; however, the complication of strokes from the thrombolytic therapy may be slightly higher in women than in men.

Emergency percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (PTCA) or coronary stenting for acute heart attack is as effective in women as in men; however women may have a slightly higher rate of procedure-related complications in their blood vessels (such as bleeding or clotting at the point of insertion of the PTCA catheter in the groin) and death. This higher rate of complications has been attributed to women's older age, smaller artery size, and greater severity of angina. The long-term outcome of angioplasty or stenting however, is similar in men and women, and should not be withheld due to gender. This is still the preferred mode of therapy if it can be performed in a timely fashion.

The immediate mortality from coronary artery bypass graft surgery (CABG) in women is higher than that for men. The higher immediate mortality rate has been attributed to women's older age, smaller artery size, and greater severity of angina (the same as for PTCA). Long-term survival, rate of recurrent heart attack and/or need for reoperation, however, are similar in men and women after CABG.

What about hormone therapy and heart attack in women?

After menopause, the production of estrogen by the ovaries gradually diminishes over several years. Along with this reduction, there is an increase in LDL ("bad" cholesterol) and a small decrease in HDL ("good" cholesterol). These changes in lipid levels are believed to be one of the reasons for the increased risks of developing CAD after menopause. Women who have had their ovaries surgically removed (oophorectomy) or experience an early menopause, also have an accelerated risk of CAD.

Since treatment with estrogen hormone results in higher HDL and lower LDL cholesterol levels, doctors thought for many years that estrogen would protect women against CAD (as well protect against dementia and stroke). Many studies have found that postmenopausal women who take estrogen have lower CAD rates than women who do not. Unfortunately many of the studies were observational studies (studies in which women are followed over time but decide on their own whether or not they wish to take estrogen). Observational studies have serious shortcomings because they are subject to selection bias; for example, women who choose to take estrogen hormones may be healthier and have a lower risk of heart attacks than those who do not. In other words, something else in the daily habits of women who take estrogen (such as exercise or healthier diet) may make them less likely to develop heart attacks. Therefore, only a randomized trial (a study in which women agree to be assigned to estrogen or a placebo or sugar pill at random but are not told which pills they took until the end of the study) can establish whether hormone therapy after menopause can prevent CAD.

HERS trial results

The Heart and Estrogen/progestin Replacement Study (HERS), was a randomized placebo-controlled trial of the effect of the daily use of estrogens plus medroxyprogesterone (progestin) on the rate of heart attacks in postmenopausal women who already had CAD. The HERS trial did not find a reduction in heart attacks in women who took hormone therapy. This lack of benefit in preventing heart attacks occurred despite an 11% lower LDL and a 10% higher HDL cholesterol level in the women treated with hormones. The study also found that more women in the hormone-treated group experienced blood clots in the veins and gallbladder disease than women in the placebo-treated group. (Blood clots in the veins are dangerous because these clots can travel to the lungs and cause pulmonary embolism, a condition with chest pain, shortness of breath, and even shock and death.) However, the increase in gallbladder disease and blood clots among healthy users of estrogen who do not have heart disease is very small.

Based on the results of this study, researchers concluded that estrogen is not effective in preventing coronary artery disease and heart attacks in postmenopausal women who already have CAD. It should be noted, however, that the results of the HERS trial only apply to women who have known CAD prior to starting hormone therapy and not to women without known coronary artery disease.

WHI trial results

The Women's Health Initiative (WHI) was the first randomized controlled trial designed to determine the long-term benefits and risks of treatment with estrogens plus medroxyprogesterone (progestin) in healthy menopausal women (women without CAD). The results were reported in a series of articles in 2002, 2003, and 2004. The estrogen + progestin portion of the WHI study had to be stopped earlier than planned, after just 5.2 years, because the increase in coronary heart disease, stroke, and pulmonary embolism among women who use estrogen + progesterone outweighed the benefits of reduced bone fractures and colon cancer. The estrogen-alone portion of the WHI was stopped because women who took estrogen alone had no reduction in heart attack risk, yet there was a significant increase in stroke risk.

An increase in breast cancer became apparent after three to five years, but the increase in heart disease and pulmonary emboli occurred early on, in the first year.

Recommendations for the use of estrogens plus medroxyprogesterone (progestin) in women

MedicineNet Medical Editors believe that:

  • Decisions regarding use of hormone therapy have to be individualized, and all women should discuss with their physicians what is best for them.
  • Estrogens plus medroxyprogesterone (progestin) is still the best therapy for hot flashes. Despite the WHI study, many women remain good candidates for estrogens plus medroxyprogesterone (progestin) therapy (or estrogen alone if they have had hysterectomy). This is especially true if hormone therapy is limited to the shortest duration, optimally less than five years.
  • Estrogens with or without medroxyprogesterone (progestin) should not be used to prevent or treat either Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, or stroke.
  • While estrogens plus medroxyprogesterone (progestin) are effective in preventing osteoporosis and related bone fractures, women concerned about the risk of hormone therapy should discuss their concerns with their doctors, the use of other nonhormonal alternatives to prevent and treat osteoporosis.


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