Aberdeen, Scotland—The risk of ovarian cancer in young women appears to be reduced with new formulations of combined oral contraceptives that contain both lower doses of estrogen and newer progestogens, according to a new study.

The report in The BMJ estimates that hormonal contraceptives prevented 21% of ovarian cancer cases in younger women who used them. Results of the large observational study also suggest that longer-term use strengthens the benefits and that positive effects persist for several years after the drugs are terminated.

While previous research has demonstrated a reduced risk of ovarian cancer in women who take combined oral contraceptives, most studies involved older products containing higher levels of estrogen and older progestogens, background information in the study notes.

To update the information, researchers at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark employed national prescribing and cancer registers to gather data for nearly 1.9 million Danish women aged 15 to 49 years between 1995 and 2014.

Participants, 86% of whom were taking combined oral contraceptives, were categorized as:
• Never-users (no record of being dispensed hormonal contraception)
• Current users
• Recent users (up to 1 year after stopping use)
• Former users (more than 1 year after stopping use)

After taking age and parity into consideration, the researchers determined that cases of ovarian cancer were greatest in women who had never used hormonal contraception—7.5 per 100,000 person years—but dropped to 3.2 per 100,000 person-years in women who had ever used hormonal contraception.

The study team reports that reduced risk for combined products was seen with nearly all types of ovarian cancer and that the type of progestogen didn’t seem to matter much. Results also were similar among women followed until their first switch in contraceptive type.

Older women, in whom most cases of ovarian cancer occur, were not part of the study, which was limited to females aged 15 to 49 years between 1995 and 2014.

“Based on our results, contemporary combined hormonal contraceptives are still associated with a reduced risk of ovarian cancer in women of reproductive age, with patterns similar to those seen with older combined oral products,” the study authors conclude, adding, “The reduced risk seems to persist after stopping use, although the duration of benefit is uncertain. Presently, there is insufficient evidence to suggest similar protection among exclusive users of progestogen-only products.”

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