Finally, some good news about ovarian cancer: According to a new study published in the Annals of Oncology, the death rate from ovarian cancer has leveled off or declined in many countries across the globe over the past 20 years. The main reason for this, the study's authors contend, is the use of oral contraceptives. Using data from the World Health Organization, researchers looked at the number of deaths from ovarian cancer between 1970 and 2012 in close to 50 countries to calculate death rates and how they've changed over time. They also calculated death rates from ovarian cancer for varying age groups. Among the findings: Between 2002 and 2012, deaths decreased by 10% in the E.U. as a whole and by roughly 16% in the U.S., where use of the hormonal birth control pill is commonplace. The link between the birth control pill and a reduced risk for ovarian cancer is consistent across multiple studies, according to the National Cancer Institute. "Indeed," the researchers of the current study write, "the falls are larger in countries of Northern Europe and in the USA, where [oral contraceptive] use was earlier and more widespread."
Worldwide, the researchers found the declines in the death rate were highest for younger women, between the ages of 20 and 49. And if the death rate continues to decrease the way it has since 2002, the researchers predicted that we'll see another 15% decrease in the U.S. and a 10% decrease in the E.U. by 2020. All this (great news) said, the researchers did find some more troubling trends as well. For example, among European countries, the progress was uneven: The percentage decrease ranged from just .6% in Hungary to 27% in Estonia, with Bulgaria experiencing a slight increase. Also, although in general Latin American countries tended to have a lower ovarian cancer death rate than European and North American countries, ovarian cancer deaths did increase in Mexico, Colombia, Cuba, Venezuela, and Brazil.
This could be due to differences in when women in these countries started using oral contraceptives, as well as trends related to childbirth (how many children a woman has also seems to be linked to her ovarian cancer risk) and trends in the use of hormonal replacement therapy (HRT) for treating the symptoms of menopause. Looking at larger trends in mortality like these is important for researchers, but this isn't a reason to start birth control pills if you're not already taking them, necessarily. What's more important is taking findings like these into consideration when weighing your birth control needs as well as your individual risks. If you have a family history of ovarian cancer, for example, this might be welcome news for you. However, as the American Cancer Society notes, the use of hormonal birth control may slightly increase your risk for other cancers, so you may find that other methods of birth control are better for you. These are all things you should discuss with your doctor. If you're already happily taking the pill, though, you can count this as yet another surprising benefit of that trusty monthly pack.