Researchers studied 1,300 healthy women ages 35 to 55 in a long-running observational study in the small town of Erpe-Mere. Around 81 percent of the women had taken oral contraceptives for more than a year at some point in their lives and about 27 percent were current users.
Ultrasound exams were performed to look for buildup of plaque in the legs and neck. Researchers found a 20 to 30 percent increased prevalence of plaque for every 10 years of oral contraceptive use. Though the observed buildup of plaque was small and not nearly enough to block an artery, any amount of plaque is thought to raise the risk of heart disease.
However, researchers concede that further testing needs to be done to determine if the presence of plaque translates to any true risk of heart attacks or strokes. Surprising to the researchers is the lack of testing and safety data for oral contraceptives that have been used for decades by 80 percent of women. Women worried about heart disease risks should not abandon birth control but rather focus on reducing other risk factors like smoking and being inactive.