The birth control pill puts women at a higher risk of heart disease, even after use of oral contraceptives has been discontinued, says a surprising new Belgian study. While birth control pills have long been linked to drug side-effects like blood clots, this latest research suggests that they also make it more likely that a woman will develop artery-clogging plaque in vital blood vessels.
This latest birth control pill study was conducted by researchers at Ghent University in Belgium. It followed 1300 ex-pill users between the ages of 35 and 55, about half of whom had used oral contraceptives for more than 13 years. Women who used the pill had an increase in the amount of plaque buildup in the blood vessels supplying the legs and brain. The study found that for every 10 years that a woman used birth control pills, the amount of plaque in these vessels increased by as much as 30 percent. What’s more, the risk of developing plaque stayed high even after a woman was off birth control pills for several years.
These latest findings are only going to heighten the controversy over the health effects of birth control pills. While oral contraceptives have been known to increase the risk of high blood pressure and blood clots, these risks disappear once a woman stops taking the pill. That does not appear to be the case with this newly discovered side-effect, and such a plaque buildup would put birth control pill users at a higher risk of heart attacks and strokes. Two earlier studies had linked an older version of the pill to an 80 to 200 percent risk of heart attacks in women who were currently using it.
These finding could have huge implications for women in the United States, where about 11.7 million women use oral contraceptives. But the Belgian researchers conceded that this study was too small to conclude that women should stop taking birth control pills, or that their use should even be limited. Furthermore, because birth control pills are being made with lower levels of hormones today, the scientist could not say what the implications were for women using newer versions of the pill. For that reason, they are urging more research be done on this side effect.
However, in light of these findings, some women and their physicians might want to reassess their use of the pill if they have other risk factors for heart disease. The author of the Belgian study also said that all birth control users should do what they can to limit or lower their overall risk of heart disease. They suggested that women avoid obesity, stop smoking and get regular exercise as a way to combat heart disease, whether they use the pill or not.