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The Estrogen Elixir: A History of Hormone Replacement Therapy in America
Siegel, ElizabethLast Updated: May-05-2020
- Teagarden, J. Russell
Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction
Summary:Elizabeth Siegel Watkins reports on the use of estrogen alone and in combination with progestin for women during menopause and after menopause from the 1890s until the book was published in 2007. She concentrates on the sixty years between 1942 and 2002. The event Watkins uses to mark 1942 as an important moment is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for the estrogen product Premarin as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in women with menopause symptoms. The event she uses to mark 2002 is the release Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) findings that showed estrogen is not the “elixir of life” that many thought it was then.
Watkins builds her story off the trajectory of estrogen use during this sixty-year period, which spanned two peaks followed by two crashes. The estrogens for HRT first crested in the early 1970s before its use dropped dramatically in 1975 on uterine cancer fears. Estrogen use began to rise in the early 1980s on regained confidence from combined use with progestin to reduce uterine cancer risk and from hopes that bone loss could be prevented and even reversed. This resurrection continued through the 1990s as estrogen use during and after menopause became “associated with reduced risk of colon cancer, prevention of tooth loss, lower incidence of osteoarthritis, increase in bone mass, reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and lower rates of death from all causes” (p. 241).
Based on surveys of prescribers and prescription data during this time, Watkins concludes that “physicians who saw menopausal women as patients were…enthusiastic prescribers of HRT” (p. 244). They remained enthusiastic, making Premarin the most prescribed pharmaceutical product through much of the 1990s and until 2002 when the WHI trial was stopped three years early because it showed that HRT failed to produce the expected benefits, and even worse.
Women who took the estrogen–progestin pills, as compared with those in the control group who took placebo pills, increased their risk of breast cancer by 26 percent (relative risk of 1.26), coronary heart disease by 29 percent (1.29), stroke by 41 percent (1.41), and pulmonary embolism (blood clot) by 213 percent (2.13). (p. 271)The investigators advised clinicians based on these results, that HRT “should not be initiated or continued for the primary prevention of coronary heart disease” (p. 271). Watkins quotes an editorial from the Journal of the American Medical Association that went further in saying that the trial “provides an important health answer for generations of health postmenopausal women to come—do not use estrogen / progestin to prevent chronic disease” (p. 273). HRT prescriptions plummeted.
These clinical inputs into the trajectory of estrogen are just the bare bones of estrogen history. Watkins fills in the story:
The story of estrogen is woven from several strands: blind faith in the ability of science and technology to solve a broad range of health and social problems, social and cultural stigmatization of aging, shifting meanings and interpretations of femininity and female identity, and the pitfalls of medical hubris in the twentieth century. (p. 1)Watkins weaves these strands into the story of estrogen, which she tells in a chronological fashion, often as the subjects of individual chapters. Some include: the implications of rising feminism; pharmaceutical company promotional activities; the roles of patient advocacy organizations; FDA requirements for patient information about prescription drugs; generational differences in views of menopause; evolving research methods and evidence standards; and cultural shifts and mainstream media influences.