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Even Low-Dose Birth Control Pill Raises Heart Risk

But young women's absolute risk remains small, experts note

WEDNESDAY, July 13, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Taking birth control pills may double a woman's risk of heart attack or stroke, but that risk vanishes after a woman stops taking low-dose oral contraceptives, researchers add.

And while use of the Pill can raise cardiovascular risk, the researchers note that a premenopausal woman's absolute risk of a cardiac event is usually very low to begin with.

Still, "the study suggests that women in general are at an increased risk of having a cardiovascular event while taking even these third-generation, low-dose, birth control pills," study author Dr. John Nestler, a professor and chairman of the division of endocrinology and metabolism at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond, said in a prepared statement.

The findings are based on a review of studies published between January 1980 and October 2002.

"Prolonged exposure to low-dose oral contraceptives in a population at higher risk may significantly increase the incidence of cardiovascular outcome, and prompt considerations of alternative therapeutic or contraceptive interventions," Nestler wrote.

According to the Virginia researcher, populations at "higher risk" for heart attack or stroke include women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or a constellation of risk factors collectively known as the "metabolic syndrome" -- conditions such as high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, obesity and low HDL "good" cholesterol.

Even though the study concluded that taking the Pill may double the risk of heart attack, the absolute risk for an individual young woman taking the Pill is very low, Nestler said.

"Women using the Pill are not going to automatically have a heart attack. However, our findings do raise the issue of whether oral contraceptives are optimal therapy for certain groups of women who are at baseline risk or who are taking the Pill for a longer time, such as women with PCOS," he said.

The study appears in the July issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

More information

The Nemours Foundation has more about the birth control pill.

SOURCE: Virginia Commonwealth University, news release, July 7, 2005
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