Pill fears eased by US study showing health benefits

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Oral contraceptives appear to prevent heart disease and some cancers in women, according to the largest study into the long-term health impact of the Pill. The findings contradict previous claims that the Pill increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and other serious health problems.

Oral contraceptives appear to prevent heart disease and some cancers in women, according to the largest study into the long-term health impact of the Pill. The findings contradict previous claims that the Pill increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and other serious health problems.

Hundreds of thousands of women stopped taking their oral contraceptives in 1995 after studies suggested that use of the Pill was linked to higher rates of heart attacks, stroke and blood clots. The abortion rate rose because of unwanted pregnancies caused by the scare. More than three million women in Britain use oral contraceptives and they are still the most popular way of preventing pregnancy.

Researchers from Wayne State University in Detroit studied more than 60,000 women who had used the Pill and compared them with those who had never taken it. The research was presented at the annual conference of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in Philadelphia yesterday.

They found that women who took the Pill for between one and four years had a 10 per cent lower risk of suffering from cardiovascular problems, such as heart attacks, hypertension and angina. Pill users for four to eight years had a 12 per cent reduced risk, and those who had taken oral contraceptives for more than eight years were 18 per cent less likely to suffer heart problems than those who had never used them. The Pill was also linked to a 7 per cent reduced risk of cancers overall, including a 19 per cent reduction in ovarian cancer and an 18 per cent lower chance of developing cancer of the womb.

Dr Rahi Victory, the study's author, said: "In stark contrast to recent and previous findings, our data supports significant cardiovascular disease risk reductions in women with a history of oral contraceptive use. In women with no other risk factors [such as family history of heart disease], the Pill could be used to prevent cardiovascular events and some cancers."

Dr Victory added that use of the oral contraceptive may offer protection in later life. He said the previous studies which triggered the Pill scare were "flawed" in their design and the way they analysed data. Researchers believe the oestrogen hormones in the Pill may prevent inflammation of blood vessels and reduce the chances of heart disease. But they still do not know how the contraceptive protects against cancers.

Ann Furedi, the chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said: "Given that so many women do use the Pill ... any study that shows health benefits above and beyond its excellent record on preventing pregnancy is to be welcomed. Women worry that the benefit of preventing unwanted pregnancies is bought at the cost of a long-term health risk, so this is very reassuring."

A separate study presented at the conference found that the Pill lowered women's sex drive. Researchers from the University of California found that one in six women may experience a loss of libido. They said women who are not on the Pill have higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of a sex hormone that suppresses desire.

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