Norwich scientists discover HRT hormone drug may help prevent Alzheimer's disease

HRT study gives hope to women who carry Alzheimer's gene Credit: PA

Hormone replacement therapy may help prevent Alzheimer's disease in millions of at-risk women, according to scientists.

Researchers at the University of East Anglia in Norwich found that hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which helps control symptoms of the menopause, is associated with better memory, cognitive function and larger brain volumes in later life in women carrying a gene called APOE4.

About a quarter of women in the UK are thought to carry that gene and Alzheimer's is more common in women than men.

APOE4 is the strongest risk factor gene for Alzheimer's disease, although inheriting APOE4 does not mean someone will definitely develop the condition.

In a new study, researchers found that HRT was most effective when given during perimenopause - where symptoms build up months or years before periods actually stop - and could lead to brains that appear several years younger.

Medical researchers at the UEA discover exciting breakthough in dementia prevention Credit: ITV Anglia

Professor Anne-Marie Minihane, from UEA's Norwich Medical School, who led the study with Professor Craig Ritchie at the University of Edinburgh, said: "We know that 25% of women in the UK are carriers of the APOE4 gene and that almost two thirds of Alzheimer's patients are women.

"In addition to living longer, the reason behind the higher female prevalence is thought to be related to the effects of menopause and the impact of the APOE4 genetic risk factor being greater in women.

"We wanted to find out whether HRT could prevent cognitive decline in at-risk APOE4 carriers."

UEA study gives hope to women who carry Alzheimer's gene Credit: ITV ANGLIA

The experts studied data from 1,178 women taking part in the European Prevention of Alzheimer's Dementia initiative, which was set up to study participants' brain health over time.

The project, which involved 10 countries, tracked the brains of a total of 1,906 people over 50 who did not have dementia at the start of the study.

For the latest research, experts looked at the results of cognitive tests and brain volumes as recorded by MRI scans.

The results showed that APOE4 carriers who also used HRT had better cognition and higher brain volumes than people not on HRT and non-APOE4 carriers.

Prof Michael Hornberger, from UEA's Norwich Medical School, said: "It's too early to say for sure that HRT reduces dementia risk in women, but our results highlight the potential importance of HRT and personalised medicine in reducing Alzheimer's risk."

Dr Richard Oakley, associate director of research at the Alzheimer's Society, said: "Studies of this kind are important as they hint at a link between HRT and the changes to the brain.

"We need more studies, on a larger scale, to better understand this link."

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