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A skin patch of natural estrogen can improve memory in women with Alzheimer’s disease, according to a UW-Madison study of an alternative to the synthetic estrogen pill other research said increases the risk of dementia.

In the new study of 43 post-menopausal women with Alzheimer’s, some wore a patch delivering estradiol, a natural form of estrogen. After three months, those women did better on certain memory tests than before and better than similar women who didn’t wear the patch.

The treatment is different from conjugated equine estrogen, a synthetic form of the hormone found in the pill Premarin. In 2002, the landmark Women’s Health Initiative study said that form of estrogen therapy increased the risk of dementia.

Since then, use of estradiol and research on it has increased.

The new study at UW-Madison, also conducted in Seattle, suggests estradiol can reduce the severity of Alzheimer’s-related memory problems, said lead researcher Whitney Wharton.

“Women who are going through menopause should consider talking to their doctors about taking estradiol not only as a way to fight the symptoms of menopause but also as a cognitive benefit now and later,” she said.

The study, by Wharton and other researchers at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, and Madison’s Veterans Hospital, was published online last week in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The findings build on earlier studies by Dr. Sanjay Asthana, director of the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, that showed the clinical benefits of estradiol.

Lab studies suggest the hormone breaks down Alzheimer’s-related amyloid plaques in the brain, unlike most drugs for the disease that merely treat symptoms, Wharton said.

A study comparing estradiol and conjugated equine estrogen in more than 700 women shortly after menopause is expected to yield results soon, she said.

About 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, including 110,000 in Wisconsin, and more than two-thirds are women, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.