Hormone therapy may prevent depression for women in menopause transition

By Costa Maragos Posted: January 15, 2018 6:00 a.m.

Dr. Jennifer Gordon, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, is the lead author of a study examining depression in perimenopausal women.
Dr. Jennifer Gordon, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, is the lead author of a study examining depression in perimenopausal women. Photo courtesy of Debra Marshall - Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation

There’s a new development to report in research that could prevent depression for women in the menopause transition.

Dr. Jennifer Gordon, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, is the lead author of a research study examining depression and hormones in perimenopausal women.

Studies show that the likelihood a woman will experience depressive symptoms while transitioning to menopause increases two to four times.

Gordon and the Perimenopausal Estrogen Replacement Therapy (PERT) study research team have shown that the use of transdermal estrogen as a hormone replacement therapy during this period may prevent the onset of depression for some women.

“It’s truly groundbreaking,” says Gordon. “This study found that using an estrogen patch can prevent the increase in depressive symptoms that we would normally observe at this time.”

The results of the research have been published in JAMA Psychiatry, a peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association.

Gordon worked on the study with researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

“If the findings of this study are replicated, it could mean that transdermal estrogen will be an option for preventing the development of perimenopausal depression in women who are experiencing multiple stressful life events, or are starting to notice changes in their mood as they enter the menopause transition,” says Gordon.

The randomized clinical trial was done over 12 months and included 172 women with low depressive symptoms who were in the menopause transition or early postmenopausal period, aged 45 to 60.

Of the women receiving transdermal estrogen, 17 percent developed clinically significant depression. However, of the women receiving placebo, 32 percent developed depression.

The effects of treatment were found to be even stronger among women experiencing recent stressful life events and women in the early menopause transition.

“One important finding from this study is that nearly 50 percent of women in the placebo group developed clinically significant depressive symptoms in the early menopause transition,” says Gordon. “This is important because women often don’t even realize they’re in this phase. They often have not started having hot flashes by then so the only change they might notice is that they’re getting their period a little earlier or later than expected each month.”

Gordon has extensive experience in the area of perimenopausal depression. She worked on the PERT study during her three-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina. She continues in this field at the University of Regina.

“Working on the PERT study for so many years, you have no idea how the results will turn out, so it was exciting to analyze the data and see that estrogen had such a beneficial effect,” says Gordon.

Right now Gordon is analyzing the data to see what effect the estrogen patch had on the cardiovascular health of the women studied. She says the research team hopes to publish those results soon.  

Gordon’s research expertise in this area has been recognized in Saskatchewan and nationally. Last summer, Gordon received the prestigious Banting Research Foundation Discovery Award for $25,000 - building on the funding she previously received from the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation.

The latest study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health in the U.S., the largest biomedical research agency in the world. Gordon is also the recipient of a postdoctoral fellowship of the Fond de la Recherche du Québec–Santé, which assisted with the funding of the project.