Yeah, I know. You’ve been doing the contraception shuffle for, oh, decades now. Isn’t it “safe” yet? After all, you’re past 40. Maybe you’ve even missed a couple periods.
Not so fast.
You’re in the midst of a very hazardous crossing—those uncertain years between fertility and menopause during which you are less likely to get pregnant, but, make no mistake, you still can!
While women are indeed less fertile after 40, they absolutely can get pregnant. In fact, women can conceive even during perimenopause, when the menstrual cycle is beginning to become irregular.
For some reason, however, women seem to become more casual as they near the goalposts. How else to account for the fact that women over 40 are the least likely to use birth control of any age group, and that their abortion rates are as high those of adolescents, according to a 2008 USA Today article.
In Great Britain, women in their 40s are now called “the Sex and the City generation,” and they, too, have grown careless. In the UK, abortions within the over-40 age group have risen by one-third in the past decade. In the US, 38 percent of pregnancies in women age 40 and older are unplanned. Of those, 56 percent end in abortion, according to this article in HealthyWomen.org.
By the time they reach 40, women are generally old hands at birth control. But at this point in life some reevaluation may be in order. Levels of fertility are decreasing, and hormonal levels are (or soon will be) in flux. Some women may not want to have children; others may want to keep the option open. In any case, an unplanned surprise complicates life really fast.
This is a good time for a conversation about birth control with your healthcare provider, and you may have to initiate it. While you have more options than ever, the best one for you might be different than what worked for you in your 20s.
And just so you know, current guidelines advise that you remain on birth control until one year after your last period, the official definition of menopause. Complicating the picture is the fact that with hormonal forms of birth control, such as the pill, your cycles may be irregular or may stop completely, which masks the onset of menopause. And the withdrawal bleed during the week off the pill isn’t considered a true period.
Birth control after 40 falls into several categories: permanent, long-term or short, hormonal or barrier method. They vary in levels of effectiveness and in the side effects you may experience. And remember that condoms are the only type of birth control that protects against sexually transmitted infections.
Probably your most immediate decision is whether to end childbearing permanently. Tubal ligation is a laparoscopic procedure that happens under general anesthetic in a hospital. There’s also a new, non-surgical option that a doctor can do with a local anesthetic right in the office. Or, of course, your partner could have permanent sterilization as an outpatient office procedure.
Hormonal types of birth control are very effective, but can have both side effects (bloating, risk of stroke for some women) as well as protective benefits (against bone loss and some forms of cancer, for example). It is very important to carefully review your health history with your health care provider to select the best option for you.
Short-term hormonal options include
- Combined estrogen-progestogen pill (COCP). This is “the pill” you are probably familiar with. Since it now has very low estrogen levels, it’s considered safe for women who have no risk factors until age 55.
- Progestogen-only pill (POP), which is a good option for older women. It must be taken regularly at the same time of day, however.
Long-term hormonal options include
- Progestogen shot, which is a once-every-8-12-week option.
- Progestogen implant, in which a tiny rod is inserted in the upper arm. It lasts for three years.
- Vaginal rings release low dosages of estrogen. The ring is kept in the vagina for three weeks, then removed for a week.
- A patch, which also releases low dosages of estrogen and progestogen.
- An IUD impregnated with progestogen, which is highly effective and lasts for years.
The old non-hormonal standbys still include
- Condom. Again, the only birth control that also protects against STIs.
- Non-hormonal IUD. Also highly effective and long-lasting.
- Diaphragm with spermicide, cervical cap, or spermicidal sponge.
Your choice of birth control at this point should be informed and careful. You need a plan to carry you through menopause, and you need to begin the dialog with your healthcare provider.
Since the consequences of ignoring the issue are so life-changing, this conversation ought to begin now!