Oral Contraceptives - Don't Panic

November 7, 2007

The headlines are everywhere today on oral contraceptives and heart disease. As usual, many of them are sensational rather than informative –

  • “How the pill can make you ill”
  • “Birth control causes increased risk of heart disease”
  • “Oral contraception can increase heart disease risk”

These headlines arise from findings that use of oral contraceptives may lead to an increase in arterial plaque, and thus possibly raising heart disease risk. Based on these snippets, which sound so definitive, you might be tempted to toss your pill packs straight into the garbage. A closer look, though, reveals the following:

-The media coverage is the result of a presentation at an American Heart Association conference. This means that the findings are preliminary, and the data isn’t yet published in a peer-reviewed journal or widely available for examination.

-The study was conducted in Belgium. It is not yet clear how well that population corresponds to other populations of women, such as in the United States.

-The women studied were ages 35-55, meaning that many of them may have taken earlier, higher dose versions of the pill that are thought to be more risky than current versions.

The main researcher also indicated that the findings should not be cause for panic, and that women have other ways to reduce their cardiovascular risk aside from immediately ditching the pill, stating:

“Bottom line — don’t discontinue your pill suddenly. Don’t panic. Don’t call your gynecologist tomorrow morning.”

An unrelated note: If you follow the Kaiser Network’s Daily Reports, please note that the Women’s Health Policy Report is now being produced by the National Partnership for Women and Families. Time to update your feed subscriptions.

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