Doctors have known for a long time that eye cells have estrogen receptors, but in the past few years they’ve started looking at whether changes in estrogen levels affect a woman’s risk of getting glaucoma.
Glaucoma is an eye disease that shows up after age 40 and slowly damages the optic nerve. There are treatments that can slow it down, but there is no cure.
In this study, researchers looked at data on 3,406 women over 40 who participated in a big national health survey administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The women who had taken oral contraceptives for more than three years were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with glaucoma.
But the absolute risk of getting glaucoma after age 40 is small, about 1.86 percent, according to the CDC. So doubling that risk would bring it up to a bit under 4 percent.
Scientists assure us, however, that there is no “proof” that birth control pills cause the increased risk, but frankly, the numbers speak for themselves.
There’s no denying, however, that there’s a relationship between eyesight and estrogen. Scientists have known for a long time that estrogen protects the retina. So, it would make sense, even to professors at UCSF, that the pill could affect the eyes.
The reason why is because birth control pills suppress those cyclical spikes in estrogen levels throughout the month that prompt the ovary to release the egg for fertilization. That “dampening” may add to the risk of retinal damage.
Of course, professor Lin at UCSF says that women shouldn’t stop using the birth control pill, despite this new information.
However, he added, women with higher risk factors for glaucoma, including women of color and those with a family history, should “be aware”.
“If you’ve been using oral contraceptives for a long time, that may be enough indication for you to get screened for glaucoma.”
Tests for glaucoma are painless and inexpensive, and usually a part of routine eye exams anyway.
His research was presented in New Orleans recently at the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Nurses Health Study, a 2011 publication, also looked into the estrogen-glaucoma connection. They found that women who used BCP for more than 5 years had a 25% increase in their risk of developing glaucoma, a finding they called “modest”.
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