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November 18th, 2013
09:18 AM ET

Long-term Pill use may double glaucoma risk

Women who used birth control pills for three years or more have twice the risk of developing glaucoma later in life, according to new research.

Glaucoma is a disease that damages the eye’s optic nerve and is a leading cause of blindness in the United States.

It’s been well documented that low-estrogen levels following menopause contribute to glaucoma in women. Scientists don’t know exactly why this happens.  But years of using birth control pills, which can also lower estrogen levels, may add to the problem.

The study, conducted by researchers at University of California, San Francisco, Duke University School of Medicine and Third Affiliated Hospital of Nanchang University, Nanchang, China, did not differentiate between women who took low-estrogen or regular birth control pills. Investigators theorize that when women are not on the pill, their natural estrogen levels go up and down, which seems to prevent the eye from developing glaucoma.  When women go on the pill, their estrogen levels are consistent, and in some cases consistently low, which could cause them to develop the condition.

This research project is the first to suggest an increased risk of glaucoma in women who have used oral contraceptives for three or more years. The researchers looked at data on more than 3,400 women aged 40 and older from across the United States, who answered questionnaires about their reproductive health and eye exams.   

“We believe at this point, by analyzing the data, there is an association between long-term birth control use and glaucoma,"  said Elaine Wang, of Duke University and an author of the study.

“Why?  We’re not sure. The next step is to examine the eyes carefully and look at exactly what is happening to a woman’s vision when she’s on birth control pills.  We need to verify these findings.”

Although study authors say more research needs to be done, they do stress that gynecologists and ophthalmologists need to be aware of the fact that oral contraceptives may play a role in glaucomatous diseases.  They believe doctors should make sure their female patients have their eyes screened for glaucoma, especially if they also have other risk factors, such as race, (African-Americans are at highest risk) family history of glaucoma or a history of increased eye pressure problems.

"This study should be an impetus for future research to prove the cause and effect of oral contraceptives and glaucoma," said Dr. Shan Lin, lead researcher and professor of clinical ophthalmology at the University of California, San Francisco. "At this point, women who have taken oral contraceptives for three or more years should be screened for glaucoma and followed closely by an ophthalmologist, especially if they have any other existing risk factors."

Because glaucoma affects 60 million people worldwide and is the leading cause of bilateral blindness, second only to cataracts, screening for the condition is encouraged for all people, especially over the age of 50. Although it can be treated, doctors say any new information on glaucoma is important.

“This supports the importance of getting screened, especially if you fall into the high risk category,” noted Dr. Thomas Yau, an ophthalmologist from Silver Spring, Maryland, and a member of the American Academy of Ophthalmology .  “It brings to the equation a possible new risk factor for glaucoma. Should we be raising the red flag?  Not yet, but birth control use should be looked at as a possible risk when talking to patients.”

The research was presented Monday at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.


soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. cali girl

    This would have been great if you told me YESTERDAY.

    November 18, 2013 at 13:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Kath1y

    Does this mean we should consider taking hormones post-menopause?

    November 18, 2013 at 15:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. IronCelt

    Three times three years on the wretched pill and glaucoma before menopause–with no other risk factors or family history. Now I know what happened to me.

    November 18, 2013 at 16:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. SandySlvr

    I was on the pill for 17 years (high-dose during the eighties) and currently in my fifth year of menopause (never any hormone treatments) and I'm tested every year for glaucoma – no problems here

    November 18, 2013 at 18:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hayley0759

      i have the birth control that it implanted in my arm and i am 17 years old i havent even had it a year but its been almost a year, does all birth control affect you getting glaucoma or just the pill because at one point i had the implanon in my arm and was taking the pill too get my periods regular and i stop taking the pill because i never rememberd to do so. so should i talk to my doctor ?

      November 19, 2013 at 10:12 | Report abuse |
    • Crocky

      Definitely something to think about, Hayley. I'm on Depo Provera (for period supression due to severe endometriosis), and so I wonder the same thing...is it exclusively oral contraceptives or is it all hormonal contraceptives that increase the risk of glaucoma?

      November 21, 2013 at 08:47 | Report abuse |
  5. C

    Some of the perils of 20th C medicine... They are making headway these days with more and more natural (ingredients) oral contraceptives... And now with marijuana more and more being regarded as a safe method of medication, you can safely help bout the signs & symptoms of glaucoma with no negative side effects.

    November 18, 2013 at 19:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. myreply

    correlation does not imply causation. this article just shows a correlation and more study will follow. usually another variable exists too

    November 18, 2013 at 22:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. julnor

    What a great day to be a trial lawyer!

    November 18, 2013 at 22:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. SomeGuy

    I'm a guy with glaucoma and I have never taken any birth control pills.

    Glaucoma is an easily treated condition, and very prevalent. Only reason it's the leading cause of blindness is that it's so prevalent, and lots of people don't get checked, and lots of people who have it fail to take their eye drops regularly. Just accept it and move on, and you'll be fine...

    November 19, 2013 at 02:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Richard

    OMG! Fluke is going blind and I need to pay for that also?

    November 19, 2013 at 05:11 | Report abuse | Reply
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    November 22, 2013 at 12:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Terish Hudson

    Hi I am a 24 year old healthy young woman I have been on bc since 13 to help regulate my cycles until I was actually active and then on in my adult like I haven't been on the for about 2 yrs! I was watching the news and I fell to the floor! I haven't been to the eye doctor since 18! Smh embarrassed to say I have been a young runner! I notice at the age of 21 that I could potentially be causing some kind of scientific damage to my body or something! My left eye is loosing its grip I'm so scared! I am unable to pay for a doctors visit at the moment and I would love to find out if I am a victim of this Solution! I'm almost certain! Smh

    November 25, 2013 at 21:16 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.