Troy Brown conducting: An Expert Interview With Ivy M. Alexander, PhD, APRN, ANP-BC, FAAN
Editor’s note: Women at midlife have health issues that go far beyond hot flashes and symptoms of menopause. Many women find symptoms of menopause, which include hot flashes, night sweats, and vaginal atrophy, to be quite bothersome, whereas other women barely notice them. For women troubled by menopausal symptoms, many treatments and coping strategies can help.
Regardless of whether or not a woman is bothered by menopausal symptoms, her body undergoes changes related to menopause. Because of this, women at midlife have unique medical and screening needs.
“Hot Flashes and More: Midlife Women’s Health and Beyond” was presented at the 14th Annual Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Healthcare (NPWH) Premier Women’s Healthcare Conference. We spoke with one of the presenters, Ivy M. Alexander, PhD, APRN, ANP-BC, FAAN.
Medscape: What percentage of women in midlife is living with symptoms related to menopause?
Dr. Alexander: Every single woman who lives long enough will experience menopause, and all of us will have some kind of symptoms; the biggest question is whether or not it is bothersome to them. All women experience vaginal atrophy over time. There are certain different symptoms that affect everybody; whether or not it is bothersome is a separate question.
Medscape: Do vasomotor symptoms associated with menopause consist only of hot flashes, or are there other symptoms as well?
Dr. Alexander: Some women get sweats and some women get chills. In Europe they call it ‘hot flushes’ instead of hot flashes, because their faces turn very red.
Medscape: What are some other consequences related to loss of estrogen?
Dr. Alexander: People can have psychosomatic symptoms, like mood swings, or they can have neurological symptoms like formication, where there’s a sensation of bugs picking over the skin. Women sometimes have disbalance.
They can have genitourinary symptoms; they can have musculoskeletal symptoms; some women have gastrointestinal symptoms. The receptors for estrogen and progestogen are all over the body, and so symptoms can occur anyplace, in areas where those receptors become unbalanced, during and after menopause.
There are other physiologic changes that aren’t so much symptoms as they are physiologic changes like loss of bone mass and increase of cardiovascular disease, although that’s not really related directly to loss of estrogen — it’s probably more related to estrogen-testosterone balance, or imbalance.
Medscape: What are some of the risks and benefits associated with use of hormone therapy, and which women would be considered the best candidates for it?
Dr. Alexander: We talked a lot during the session about the history of hormone therapy, and how it has swung like a pendulum over time: first it was in favor, then swung out of favor, then swung into favor, and then swung out of favor.
The most recent evidence-based (data) that we are working with include the HERS study and the WHI study. These studies have indicated that contrary to what was suggested in prior population-based observational studies, hormone therapy, estrogen therapy, or estrogen plus progesterone therapy do not confer cardiac protection, especially if taken a chunk of time after menopause.
We don’t really have good data yet whether or not there might be any kind of benefit toward that if hormone therapy is started at the time of the woman transitioning towards menopause. It looks like there are a couple of theories that are evolving, if you look at one more data and start to analyze subgroups. That has suggested 2 different theories related to when one should initiate using hormone therapy; one of them was the “gap” theory, which looks at breast cancer risk, and there’s some question about whether there might be a decrease in breast cancer risk if a woman holds off on starting hormone therapy for that 5 years post menopause.
The news is starting to suggest that if we start hormone therapy right at the time when a woman becomes postmenopausal, it helps to decrease, delay, or put off their risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Now, it is very controversial; there’s a lot of good data that’s available. Some of the results from various different studies are rather controversial and confusing, and so it’s important for people to really look hard to make sure they remain abreast of these developments.
The most immediate information that we have is what I’ve just described, and it’s looking more and more like we really need to individualize care…if the greatest risk for her is related to heart disease, you might want to think about hormone care sooner than later if in fact she’s a good candidate. If the risk factors are higher for breast cancer, you might want to wait.
Medscape: Are there any alternative therapies that you currently favor, and what are some of the risks and benefits of those, particularly when compared to hormone therapy?
Dr. Alexander: There are some alternative therapies, and nonhormonal prescription medications that can be used to try to allay symptoms related to menopause: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), selective neurotonin reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and the like.
The good thing is that we really have a lot of choices and we’re learning a lot more about potential risks and benefits, and I think that’s incredibly important. We do know that hormone therapy, estrogen therapy, or estrogen plus progesterone therapy are the single most effective for menopause-related symptoms, but it’s not a good choice for every person, and it’s not something that every woman feels comfortable taking because of some of the risk factors that we’re learning about.
Some of the things that might be most beneficial [with hormone replacement therapy] are things like: A) when a hot flash is coming on, the woman can try to decrease its intensity, or B) possibly stop it from happening.
There are a couple of different products on the market that are available, and some of them suggest benefits that may not be borne out when we do larger head-to-head clinical trials. The other thing is that there are many different things that can trigger hot flashes, and it is really important for women to recognize that there are triggers, and if something is coming on, that they might be able to stop it…if they start to feel that hot flash, by using paced breathing.
The data [related to acupuncture] is kind of all over the place. I think the most recent meta-analysis suggested that it probably didn’t have a very strong effect… The benefit of acupuncture is that it’s a very well-known, well-proven, safe alternative therapy and it certainly increases relaxation and decreases pain, so if it helps lower someone’s stress level and anxiety, it may help to decrease hot flashes — not so much because it’s having an impact on the hot flashes directly, but more because it is decreasing some things that are possibly triggering the hot flashes to begin with.
Medscape: Which women would be considered good candidates for alternative therapies?
Dr. Alexander: Anybody.
Medscape: What screening tests should be done on all women at midlife and beyond, regardless of whether they are experiencing symptoms of menopause?
Dr. Alexander: We recommend colonoscopy for women starting at age 50 or younger if there’s a family history of colon cancer that is identified before the age of 50; regular female Pap smears and annual internal exams; clinical breast exams and mammography; blood sugar and lipid screening at least every 5 years or more frequently in women at risk; PSA [prostate-specific antigen] sometime around age 40 or 50; hemoglobin around age 50; flu shots annually, pneumothorax depending on their health risk at 65, herpes zoster vaccine every 10 years; tetanus vaccine, and if there’s any travel, they should have appropriate immunizations for that.
Osteoporosis is very important; some women need to be measured on a stadiometer every single year to be sure that you actually have an accurate height. Bone density screening should be done at the age of 65, unless experiencing other risk factors earlier.
For women who are experiencing menopause-related symptoms and for whom various different therapies might be being considered, there are some screenings that we do that are separate from that: clotting factor, blood cancer risk, heart disease risk, and so forth.
Medscape: Do you have any special tips for examining women at midlife and beyond?
Dr. Alexander: It’s important that you maintain an open differential because even though a woman is 52 and hasn’t had a menstrual period in 8 months, and has symptoms that sound like they are related to menopause, it doesn’t behoove the patient or the clinic to just decide, “Those are menopause-related symptoms.” You need to really make sure you go through an appropriate history and a complete physical exam and really maintain your open mind to a broad differential and potential basis for the symptoms.
Women who are at midlife are at higher risk for diabetes, just like men are, and the waxing and waning of blood sugar levels can sometimes mimic menopause-related symptoms such as hot flashes, and it’s important to make sure that you screen for those other health conditions.
Dr. Alexander disclosed that she is on the speaker’s bureau for Amgen.
National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Healthcare (NPWH) 2011 Annual Meeting. October 12-15, 2011.0