The Estrogen Dilemma

New York Times

by Cynthia Gorney

April 12, 2010

Here we are, two fast-talking women on estrogen, staring at a wall of live mitochondria from the brain of a rat. Mitochondria are cellular energy generators of unfathomably tiny size, but these are vivid and big because they were hit with dye in a petri dish and enlarged for projection purposes. They’re winking and zooming, like shooting stars. “Oh, my God,” Roberta Diaz Brinton said. “Look at that one. I love these. I love shooting mitochondria.”

Brinton is a brain scientist. Estrogen, particularly in its relationship to the health of the brain, is her obsession. At present it is mine too, but for more selfish reasons. We’re inside a darkened lab room in a research facility at the University of Southern California, where Brinton works. We are both in our 50s. I use estrogen, by means of a small oval patch that adheres to my skin, because of something that began happening to me nine years ago — to my brain, as a matter of fact. Brinton uses estrogen and spends her work hours experimenting with it because of her own brain and also that of a woman whose name, Brinton will say, was Dr. A. She’s dead now, this Dr. A. But during the closing years of her life she had Alzheimer’s, and Brinton would visit her in the hospital. Dr. A. was a distinguished psychotherapist and had vivid stories she could still call to mind about her years in Vienna amid the great European psychologists. “We’d spend hours, me listening to her stories, and I’d walk out of the room,” Brinton told me. “Thirty seconds later, I’d walk back in. I’d say, ‘Dr. A., do you remember me?’ And she was so lovely. She’d say: ‘I’m so sorry. Should I?’

The problem with the estrogen question in the year 2010 is that you set out one day to ask it in what sounds like a straightforward way — Yes or no? Do I or do I not go on sticking these patches on my back? Is hormone replacement as dangerous in the long term as people say it is? — and before long, warring medical articles are piling up, researchers are raising their voices and gesticulating excitedly and eventually you’re in Los Angeles staring at a fluorescent rodent brain in the dark. “You want a statistic?” Brinton asked softly. Something about the shooting mitochondria has made us reverent. “Sixty-eight percent of all victims of Alzheimer’s are women. Is it just because they live longer? Let’s say it is, for purposes of discussion. Let’s say it’s just because these ladies get old. Do we just say, ‘Who cares?’ and move them into a nursing home? Or alternatively, maybe they are telling us something.”

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.