Fool women twice? Drug makers revive menopause as a “disease.”

In the words of the late soccer great Pelé spoofed on Saturday Night Live, women’s health has been “very, very good” for drug makers. In 2002, 61 million prescriptions were written for women in the U.S. for hormones to treat the so-called “disease” of menopause (which was once treated with electroshock therapy—yes, ECT).

Until the government-sponsored Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) found in 2002 that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) increased the risk of breast cancer by 26 percent, heart attacks by 29 percent, stroke by 41 percent, and doubled the risk of blood clots, HRT was a rite of passage for U.S. women like getting their first bra or using Tampax. It also doubled the risk of dementia, increased the risks of losing their hearing, gallbladder disease, urinary incontinence, asthma, melanoma, ovarian, endometrial, lung cancers, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

HRT even made detecting breast cancer more difficult. A 1995 article in the journal Radiology said, “an increase in mammographic density” was demonstrated in most subjects undergoing continuous combined HRT. The therapy was such a scourge when millions of women quit the drugs en masse in 2003, the occurrence of breast cancer fell seven percent in the U.S. and 15 percent in estrogen-feed tumors.

HRT harm was also tenacious. A 2019 WHI follow-up found that “breast cancer risk from menopause hormones may last decades” and that 19 years after using HRT, women still had a 29 percent greater incidence of breast cancer.

A menopause-as-disease revival

Now, menopause as a treatable disease is back. In February, The New York Times published a sniveling personal essay about the heartbreak of “perimenopause”—a term believed to be invented by drug makers to grow sales like “osteopenia” was coined for pre-osteoporosis to sell bone drugs.

Doctors are failing to treat the condition, wrote the New York Times’ menstrual diarist, which “suggests that we have a high cultural tolerance for women’s suffering. It’s not regarded as important.” What? The breast cancer, heart attacks, stroke, blood clots, and ovarian, endometrial, and lung cancers caused by HRT were not “suffering”? Read your medical history, diarist.

Of course, drug makers desire wide swaths of the population to take their drugs for as many years as possible (think statins and GERD medicines), which explains the menopause-as-disease revival. Pharma no doubts believes women have forgotten the HRT scourge, and they are probably right!

For example, who remembers another sniveling piece published by the New York Times Sunday magazine called “The Estrogen Dilemma” more than a decade ago? The pro-HRT article quoted five HRT “experts” who all had financial links to hormone drug makers—Claudio Soares, Louann Brizendine, Roberta Diaz Brinton, Thomas Clarkson, and Sanjay Asthana. Several letters to the Times requesting a clarification went unheeded, and the disinformation stands.

A new and lucrative “disease”

Lest anyone doubt that menopause as a disease is under revival, the drug company Astellas just received a new drug application for fezolinetant, a drug to treat “VMS,” and is launching an aggressive awareness/demand building campaign about the “disease.”

What is VMS? It is “vasomotor symptoms, due to menopause,” says the marketing campaign, that “impact many aspects of your life including your sleep, ability to focus, and personal relationships,” and torture you as “your internal infernos.”

“VMS can start as early as age 40 and can last longer than ten years for some women.” (Ka-ching.)

As I have written as a reporter for years, there is money for drug makers to convince healthy people they are sick, so they will go to the doctor and request an advertised product. More money, apparently, than there is in developing drugs for people who are really sick, which should be the mission of medicine. Convincing healthy women they are sick with “perimenopause” or “menopause” is simply the latest example of disease mongering and spreading hypochondria—both for money.

Martha Rosenberg is a health reporter and the author of Born With a Junk Food Deficiency.  

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