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    Four Decades of the Birth Control Pill


    Now that pill usage has reached maturity, we can expect more studies of the pill's effects, both long-term and short. "There haven't been many studies of women who have used the pill for a long period of time. Now that we've had 40 years of women using the pill, we're just beginning to raise questions," Gnagy tells WebMD.

    While some risks of taking the pill, such as strokes and blood clots, are the same today as they were in the early 1960, "data show that the chances of someone (not on the pill) dying of a clot is 1 in 100,000; it's two or three times higher for a woman on the pill; but for a pregnant woman, the chances are 9 in 100,000," says James Roberts, MD, head of gynecology at Stanford University School of Medicine. "So you've eliminated or at least vastly decreased that problem by taking the pill (to prevent pregnancy)."

    The pill has also been shown to decrease the risk of precancerous changes in the uterus, Roberts says. "The other benefits are less significant, but if you have someone with very heavy periods, very irregular periods, lots of cramps, or discomfort from PMS symptoms, using the pill can decrease a lot of those symptoms. The pill has also been used for treating endometriosis, a condition that is one of the major causes of infertility. It's a little paradoxical; the same pill that stops pregnancy may also help you get pregnant."

    While one pharmaceutical company has been advertising a new pill as having the ability to decrease acne, "that was something we saw from the very beginning, so it's not particularly new or unique to that pill," Roberts says. "But you see people [on the pill] who have less oily skin, less acne. It's one of the side effects that's a fringe benefit."

    How long can a woman safely take the pill? Conventional wisdom has changed a bit since the '60s. "Initially, people thought you could go to age 40 -- or age 35 if you were a smoker -- but what we've found is that if people smoke and take birth control pills, they have more difficulty with clotting abnormalities," Roberts tells WebMD. "What's turning out is that you can probably can go beyond age 40, and may well be able to go into menopause, then switch to postmenopausal hormone replacement."

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