Why Those Agonizing Hot Flashes May Not Be All Bad

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You might not want to broach the topic with a woman in the throes of a hot flash — a menopausal symptom often described as feeling like your body’s been set on fire — but a new study suggests that difficult symptoms of menopause could be a good thing.

In the study of 1,437 postmenopausal women aged 55 to 74, researchers found that those who experienced symptoms of menopause — including hot flashes, night sweats, depression and anxiety — were less likely to develop breast cancer than women who didn’t have any symptoms. In fact, the women who had the most severe and frequent hot flashes had the lowest risk of breast cancer after menopause. (More on Time.com: Study: Antidepressants May Relieve Hot Flashes)

Overall, women with menopausal symptoms were half as likely to develop invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common form of breast cancer, or invasive lobular carcinoma, compared with women who did not suffer menopausal symptoms.

The association persisted even after researchers controlled for other factors linked with cancer like obesity, hormone therapy and smoking. The New York Times‘ Well blog reports:

Hot flashes and other symptoms occur when ovarian function declines at menopause and hormone levels drop; the bigger the drop, the more pronounced symptoms may be. Even though all women have lower hormone levels after menopause, there is a range, even at these lower levels. The oversimplified explanation, Dr. [Steven R.] Goldstein, [a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York University Langone Medical Center] said, is that “estrogen deprivation causes hot flashes, and the lower your estrogen, the less likely you are to have breast cancer.”

While intriguing, the findings are preliminary — meaning that older women should remain vigilant about breast cancer screening regardless of their experience during menopause — and not terribly useful for individual patients. “It’s not like there’s a treatment” for high hormone levels, Dr. Goldstein told the Times, adding: “And there is nothing we can do to make women have more hot flashes.”

The new study was published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

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