Hormonal contraceptives such as the pill can sabotage women’s success, a study suggests.
Women appeared to give up faster than those who did not use contraceptives when they were offered both simple and difficult problem-solving tasks.
This in turn caused them to score worse, and it could impact their performance at school, college, and work, according to Texas Christian University researchers.
Previous research has shown a link between hormonal contraception and altered brain function in areas responsible for motivation, emotion and attention.
Experts emphasized, however, that birth control has enabled women to achieve more historical success by avoiding pregnancy.
Women were quicker to give up than those who did not use contraceptives when they were offered both simple and difficult problem-solving tasks, a Texas study found
PhD student Hannah Bradshaw and colleagues went in search of the influence of hormonal contraceptives on perseverance in brain tasks.
Studies show that even when a task is challenging, the ability to persevere can predict a person’s success in many areas of life.
However, there is evidence that hormonal contraceptives can negatively influence this property.
Ms. Bradshaw said, “A growing number of studies suggest that HC use may be associated with significant structural and functional differences in brain areas that are important for executive function and cognitive control of behavior.
“Research suggests that HC use can also have an effect on women’s brain structure and function.”
The team recruited college students from a university in the southern US. It compared women who had used HC for two months or not for at least three months.
The first study asked 149 women, 73 of whom with HCs, to do a simple ‘spot the difference’ task using an image from the film Frozen.
Of course, women who did not have HC cycled considerably more time on the task than women on HCs, 81 seconds compared to 67 seconds.
Analysis showed that women performed worse on HCs because they gave up earlier, the researchers said.
The second study, consisting of 175 female students, 89 of whom on HCs, entailed more challenging tasks.
First, women had to solve eight mathematical tasks with the help of a calculator.
WOMEN TAKING THE PILL “THREE TIMES MORE PROBABLE TO HAVE DEPRESSION”
Women who took the pill as a teenager may be more at risk of depression, a major study in August 2019 suggested.
Scientists from the University of British Columbia analyzed more than 1,200 women who did and did not use oral contraceptives during adolescence.
They discovered that women who took contraceptive pills were up to three times more likely to develop depression than women who never took one.
The most commonly prescribed pill contains both estrogen to prevent ovulation and progesterone to reduce the risk of a fertilized egg in the womb wall.
Studies have suggested that changing levels of these sex hormones, especially progesterone, affect areas of the brain that control cognitive functioning and emotion processing.
Taking the pill as a teenager while the brain is still developing can “irreversibly influence later behavior,” the researchers said.
The results show that cycling women naturally spent 97 seconds on the task compared to women on HCs who spent 78 seconds on it, who also performed worse.
Then women deciphered jumbled letters – an anagram – to make words. Some were ‘fake’ because they were unsolvable.
In both the real and fake anograms, women who did not take HCs spent more time trying to figure them out.
The researchers said that timing how long participants took on each task in relation to how well they scored was a measure of their perseverance.
To conclude their findings, the authors wrote: “These results suggest that HC use can affect women’s perseverance for simple and challenging tasks.”
The study did not attempt to find out why HCs can change cognitive performance, but Bradshaw and colleagues suggested a number of reasons based on earlier research.
HC users have been shown to have reduced connectivity in the executive control network of the brain, are responsible for attention, organize and plan, initiate tasks, regulate emotions and maintain self-control.
Moreover, estrogen levels, which are generally lower for HC users, appear to play a key role in the hippocampal function, also involved in emotion control and motivation.
The authors said: “Although additional human research is needed to evaluate these possible mechanisms, current results provide conclusive evidence that differences in perseverance during cognitive tasks exist between women taking HCs and women who cycle naturally, which can lead to a decrease in implementation.
“However, it is important to note that HC use can also help improve women’s education levels by allowing them to prevent unintended pregnancies, which can be an insurmountable barrier for those who want to continue their education.”
Approximately three million women in the UK take the contraceptive pill and another 11 million women in the US use hormonal contraceptives.
Since it became widely available in the 1960s, it has revolutionized the role of women in society by giving them control over when they have children.
Although it has potential side effects and risks, such as weight gain and increased risk of blood clots, it is a very effective way to prevent pregnancy.
HOW WAS THE CONTRACEPTION OF THE WOMEN APPROVED?
The first oral contraceptive, Enovid, was approved in 1960 by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
This was despite very early clinical trials in Puerto Rico in 1956 (because there was an existing network of birth control clinics) that 17 percent of women had significant unpleasant side effects.
These include dizziness and nausea, as well as headache and vomiting. Some women withdrew from court cases because they felt so sick.
The Ministry of Health approved its availability on the NHS after various results of clinical trials. The first in Birmingham saw 14 of the 48 participating women get pregnant due to the wrong dosage.
Doctors who considered it completely safe led to half a million British women in the first three years.
More research in the following years associated the use of the pill with an increased risk of breast cancer, strokes, heart attacks and blood clots.
But the FDA said that even if the pill caused such events, such as medical reports of heart failure and pulmonary tuberculosis, the number – 1.3 in 100,000 users – was much lower than the number of women who would die from pregnancy complications – 36.9 out of the 100,000 pregnant women.