Northwestern University has launched a website to help women learn about menopause and decide whether hormone replacement therapy or an alternative remedy is the best way to address the health and emotional challenges that often accompany this change of life.

The website, menopausenu.org, includes information on the various phases of menopause, symptoms, the effects of estrogen loss, research on hormone replacement therapy, as well as a self-assessment quiz. There is also information about the pros and cons of various hormones, medications and alternative treatment with herbal or plant supplements.

Menopause — the end of menstruation and fertility — typically begins between ages 35 and 55, according to the website. Symptoms, which can last for years, include hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, urinary incontinence and vaginal dryness. The accompanying loss of estrogen can also increase the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis.

Sharon Green, executive director of the Women's Health Research Institute at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who developed the website, said women could benefit from more accessible information about menopause.

"Our institute is concerned about women across the life span, and a lot of people still only think of the reproductive years and motherhood," Green said. "Now that women are living longer, they could be living 30 years post-menopausally."

Green said many women are still confused about the risks and benefits of hormone replacement therapy after a long-term Women's Health Initiative study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health reported that estrogen-progestin therapy increased the risk of breast cancer, stroke, blood clot and heart disease in post-menopausal women.

Green pointed out those results, which were published in 2002, focused on women who were an average age of 64 and whose risk for heart disease would have already increased.

"The idea in theory is if you start hormone replacement very early before the blood vessels form plaque, it might keep the blood vessels healthy longer … but if you already have plaque, hormone therapy won't reverse it, so the benefits aren't as good," she said.

Between the Women's Health Initiative study, the growth of alternative treatments, and the many commercial products claiming to help, women need more factual information, Green said. She also noted women could take the self-assessment quiz to their doctors to help with a treatment plan.

"I think there is a lot of confusion," Green said. "I just thought we needed a place where people would only get the facts."

Dr. Elena M. Kamel, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, said she was excited about the website, particularly the self-assessment quiz.

"What we've learned is you have to individualize care when you're looking at hormone therapy, and this tool really allows us to individualize care in a scientific manner because it has such a good history on the patient," Kamel said. "The questionnaire is detailed in a targeted way to highlight the most important health issues that influence women as they age."

Dr. Linda Holt, another menopause expert and senior attending physician in obstetrics and gynecology, at NorthShore University HealthSystem, said she would definitely recommend the website to patients.

"I would steer my patients to this website, definitely, just in terms of information that is accurate, easy to maneuver and to get the basic information about hormones," said Holt, who is also senior clinician educator at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.

But Holt said she would also like to see some of the information expanded and positive aspects of both hormone replacement and menopause highlighted.

"It's a time when a lot of women start to take a breath after getting their children through the immediate needs of small children and kind of start to think about themselves a little bit."