Brain power

Taking the pill to ward off dementia is not advised, says Arlene Harris.

THE contraceptive pill has been lambasted and heralded since its conception in the 1960s. Some studies have found it to be a possible cause of cancer, while others have claimed it helps to prevent it. But it hasn’t been linked to brain health — until now.

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin have suggested that women in their 50s who took the pill during their earlier years performed better in memory tests than those who had never taken it and, in fact, may be less likely to develop dementia in later life.

The American researchers believe that oestrogen — which is the main hormone found in the pill — prevents hardening of the arteries, which increases blood supply to the brain and in turn helps to stave off dementia.

Lead researcher Kelly Egan, whose study is published in the Journal of Women’s Health, said: “Our analysis indicated that hormonal contraceptive use may have a protective cognitive (memory) effect, even years after use is discontinued. This is especially true in subjects with a longer duration of use.”

But the Irish Medicines Board says this research is not conclusive and people would be advised not to start taking the pill for the sole purpose of preventing dementia.

“The IMB is aware of this study carried out by the University of Wisconsin,” says a spokeswoman. “The authors themselves acknowledge the many limitations of the study and advise caution against interpretation of their results.

“Much more research is necessary in larger more focussed clinical trials before any conclusions can be made on this hypothesis.”

Dr Shirley McQuade of the Dublin Well Woman Clinic agrees: “The reasons for dementia are complex and multifactorial,” she says. “There probably is a link to oestrogen because previous studies have shown women who go through an early surgical menopause due to removal of their ovaries are more likely to have some cognitive impairment such as increased levels of forgetfulness.

“There have also been a number of studies looking at the possible protective effect of HRT on the development of dementia. However, it’s a bit of a leap from there to saying the contraceptive pill might be protective against dementia in the vast majority of normal women.”

Matthew Gibb, senior social worker at the Memory Clinic in St James’ Hospital, Dublin, says looking after our vascular health will help to prevent hardening of the arteries.

“We would always advise people that what is good for the heart is good for the brain,” he says.

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