A breakthrough for women “at risk” of developing Alzheimer’s disease could be on the cards as researchers have discovered the potential importance of using HRT to ward off the condition. 

It comes following a study by a team of researchers from Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Eastern Daily Press: Dave Gutridge at The Photographic UnitDave Gutridge at The Photographic Unit (Image: Dave Gutridge at The Photographic Unit)

They found that the use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was associated with better memory, cognitive function and larger brain volumes in later life in women carrying a gene called APOE4.

Considered the strongest risk factor gene for Alzheimer’s disease – more commonly diagnosed in women – inheriting it does not mean someone will definitely develop the condition. About a quarter of women in the UK are thought to carry it.

Eastern Daily Press: UEA professor Anne-Marie MinihaneUEA professor Anne-Marie Minihane (Image: Newsquest / UEA)

Professor Anne-Marie Minihane, from the UEA, led the study with Professor Craig Ritchie at the University of Edinburgh. 

She said: “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.” 

Researchers found that HRT, which helps to control symptoms of menopause, 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.

Eastern Daily Press: Dr Michael Hornberger of Norwich Medical School, UEADr Michael Hornberger of Norwich Medical School, UEA (Image: Newsquest / UEA)

Prof Michael Hornberger, also from the UEA, added: "Our results highlight the potential importance of HRT and personalised medicine in reducing Alzheimer’s risk. 

“The next stage of this research will be to carry out an intervention trial to confirm the impact of starting HRT early on cognition and brain health. It will also be important to analyse which types of HRT are most beneficial.” 

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.

Eastern Daily Press: Medical researchers at the UEAMedical researchers at the UEA (Image: UEA)

The project, which involved 10 countries, tracked the brains 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.