Two studies warn about possible long-term health consequences of taking birth-control pills. But does that mean the pill is dangerous? Heidi Ledford takes a look at why it?s so hard to get a straight answer.
So, how do they feel about the pill?
Researchers discovered that women who use birth control pills accumulate more plaque in their arteries than those who do not. Plaque is a buildup of hardened fat and cholesterol in the arteries that can cause heart disease and stroke.
More than 1,000 women who had used oral contraceptives for a length of time and subsequently stopped were evaluated by researchers at Ghent University in Belgium. Every decade a woman was on the pill, they discovered a 20-30 percent rise in plaque. The findings were presented at the American Heart Association meeting in Orlando, Florida this week, but have yet to be published.
Meanwhile, a new study published in The Lancet confirms prior findings that women on the pill had a greater risk of cervical cancer1. They discovered that ten years after stopping the medication, the risk returns to normal levels.
Does this imply that women on the pill should be concerned?
No. It's hardly news that birth control increases the risk of cervical cancer. Although the findings on artery-clogging plaque are novel, Sharonne Hayes, director of the Mayo Clinic's Women's Heart Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, cautions that they are preliminary.
We know there is an increased cardiovascular risk when using oral contraceptives,? Hayes says. However, she adds, past research have indicated that the risk decreases if women quit taking the pill. Furthermore, the women in the plaque study used an earlier type of birth control pills with higher hormone dosages.
It's an intriguing discovery, and we should investigate it further,? Hayes says. ? But we shouldn't put too much stock in it.
What else do we know about the birth-control pill and health dangers if the cervical cancer results aren't new?
The tablet has been linked to an increased risk of stroke, cervical cancer, cardiovascular disease, and breast cancer in studies. However, it has also been found in other trials to protect against ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer, acne, and breast cancer.
What gives that breast cancer is on both lists?
The verdict on breast cancer is yet out. Because this disease is known to be connected to hormone levels, looking for a link to the pill seems sense. A study of more than 150,000 women indicated that women on the pill had a slightly higher risk of breast cancer2. However, other studies have concluded that oral contraceptives have no influence on the risk of breast cancer. A recent study indicated that taking the pill had no effect on the chance of dying from breast cancer in almost 4,000 women diagnosed with the disease3.
According to Hayes, different birth-control pills contain varying levels of hormones, and some pill formulations may actually lessen the risk of breast cancer.
How do the risks and advantages of other options compare?
A research of roughly 46,000 women indicated that women who took birth control had a small reduction in total cancer risk (the lower risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer is typically assumed to offset the higher risk of cervical and breast cancer)4. However, because the majority of the women in that study were white and from the United Kingdom, the findings may not apply to other communities around the world. Some risk variables, such as a woman's number of children and her age when she has them, differ between women and cultures.
"Having fewer children and having the first kid later in life would reduce the risk of cervical cancer," says Jane Green, a cancer epidemiologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and one of the study's authors.
The risk of stroke during pregnancy and the postpartum period is twice that of birth control, according to Green.
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