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The Pill Messes with Memory? Forget about It!

a blue tablet next to a monthly pack of oral contraceptives that is 3/4 empty

Media reports that the pill affects memory, but does the research hold up?

We know remembering to take your birth control every day can be hard. Some headlines say that birth control pills alter women’s memory. Can that be true? The short answer is—in spite of the headlines—we still don’t know. 

Memory and hormones: is there a connection? 

The real story on hormones and memory is complicated. Neurobiologists have shown that hormone levels are related to how all humans remember things. For women, hormone levels change during every menstrual cycle. For women on birth control pills, levels of these hormones are low and constant. In theory, more constant levels of hormones in women taking the pill could have some effect on memory. 

We do know that women with really low estrogen levels—such as women in menopause—have a harder time remembering words. When they take estrogen pills, their memory for words improves. So do women taking birth control pills (who have relatively low estrogen levels) have a harder time remembering words compared to women not taking the pill? Studies have shown just the opposite! Women on the pill do better on tests of word and language memory than women not on the pill. (FYI, they also did better than men.) The researchers studying this issue were a little confused by this, so they decided to take another approach. 

One study in particular tried to see if that was the case. They compared memories of an emotional event between women on the pill and women not taking any hormones. They found that women not taking hormones were more likely to remember the details, and that women on the pill were more likely to remember the gist. But the jury is out about what this means, because the study had only 72 women in it and didn’t take into account the natural hormonal changes happening for women not taking the pill. There also could’ve been lots of differences between the women in the two groups besides what type of birth control they were using (such as how much sleep they’d had, for example).  

What does this mean for you? 

There are lots of myths about the way the pill affects women, and many of them aren’t true. If the pill is working for you, these studies are definitely not a reason to stop taking it. Effective birth control that keeps you from getting pregnant may be good for memory in the big picture (rumor has it that in those first few months after a baby is born, when mom’s not exactly getting a lot of sleep, memory takes a hit). If you take the pill and you’re still worried about changes to your memory, talk to a provider at your nearest The Right Time health center. You’ve got some good options for birth control without hormones, such as the copper IUD. Once placed by a health care provider, you can forget about it. Now that’s worth remembering! 


Updated April 2021 

Jessica Morse is an ob/gyn at UNC where she works with residents providing a full spectrum of reproductive health care. Her main research interest is making sure women get the birth control they want, when they want it. She lives in Durham, NC, with her husband and silly 5-year-old son, where they spend weekends hiking, hanging out at playgrounds, and exploring the Bull City.

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