2012 has been an important year for women's health, with researchers presenting multiple findings that impact women's understanding of their bodies and how to care for them.
Some of the news was good and some of it was preeeetty bad, but all the developments below are worth revisiting so you can head into 2013 armed with the knowledge you need to make next year your healthiest yet -- whatever that means for you.
Without further ado, here are the best and worst moments in women's health from the past year. Any big ones you expected to see on the list but don't? Let us know in the comments!
Worst: Komen Oversold Mammography
In an opinion piece <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/03/susan-g-komen-overselling-mammograms_n_1738428.html">published in the British Medical Journal</a>, two Dartmouth professors accused Susan G. Komen For The Cure of misleading women about the benefits of mammography. Focusing on an advertising campaign from 2011, they charged that the statistics trumpeted in those ads were unreliable. (They were <em>not</em> arguing that mammograms don't have utility). "It seems to say that [mammography] has this huge effect, and you'd have to be really irresponsible or crazy to not be screened," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/03/susan-g-komen-overselling-mammograms_n_1738428.html">Dr. Steven Woloshin, a researcher with the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy</a> and Clinical Practice told HuffPost. For its part, Komen stood by the numbers, saying in a statement that mammography, while flawed, is the best widely available screening tool available today.
Worst: Ovarian Cancer Screening Falls Short
When a disease is as deadly as ovarian cancer is, everyone expects clinicians to have a good way of screening for it. The bad news, according to the<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/11/ovarian-cancer-screening_n_1871385.html"> U.S. Preventive Services Task Force</a>, is that there <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/11/ovarian-cancer-screening_n_1871385.html">still isn't a reliable, routine test for ovarian cancer</a>. In fact, the options we do have right now can actually do more harm than good, that panel concluded last fall. Which means that when it comes to accurately and safely diagnosing fifth-leading cause of cancer death in women in the U.S., we still have a ways to go.
Worst: Over 2 in 5 Women Don't Use Birth Control
A survey from September found that more than 2 in 5 <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/21/birth-control-study-over-2-in-5-women-dont-use-contraception_n_1904802.html">women between the ages of 18 and 49 do not use any form of protection during sex</a>. Objectively, there's nothing wrong with not using birth control -- as long as you know that you could get pregnant and are okay with that. However, when researchers probed the "why" behind that lack of contraception use, they found that the 1,000 women surveyed tended to underestimate their chances of getting pregnant unintentionally. Only 7 percent of women who were sexually active and not attempting to have a baby felt they were at "high risk" for an accidental pregnancy.
Worst: Alcohol Dependence Deadlier For Women
Research published in the journal <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/17/women-alcohol-dependence-death_n_1973713.html">Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research</a> found that alcohol dependence is twice as deadly for women as it is for men -- in part because women's bodies contain less water (which helps dilute alcohol) and more fat (which helps the body retain it) than men's. The effect of alcohol dependency on women's bodies, one expert <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/17/women-alcohol-dependence-death_n_1973713.html">told HuffPost</a>, is "particularly harsh."
Worst: Many Women Fuzzy On Post-40 Fertility
A study in the journal <em>Human Reproduction</em> found that almost half of women who got pregnant through IVF after age 40 were <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/10/fertility-decline-women-surprised-over-40-ivf_n_2273122.html?utm_hp_ref=womens-health">surprised to discover that they needed the fertility treatment</a>. And some 30 percent of the respondents said they expected they'd get pregnant without difficulty, despite what experts generally call "advanced maternal age." "Very few participants had considered the possibility that they would need IVF, and 44 percent reported being 'shocked' and 'alarmed' to discover that their understandings of the rapidity of age-related reproductive decline were inaccurate," the study's authors wrote.
Worst: Many Women Don't Know When They're Fertile
Only 13 percent of women polled at two fertility clinics in Australia correctly identified the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/06/when-can-you-get-pregnant-fertility-calendar-conception_n_1861006.html?utm_hp_ref=womens-health">days of their menstrual cycle during which they were fertile</a>, despite the fact that almost 70 percent of them thought they'd effectively timed their intercourse in order to have the best chance at conceiving naturally. The findings, published in July in the <em>International Journal of Advanced Nursing</em>, point to the possibility that some couples may proceed to assisted reproductive technology before they've truly given timed intercourse a chance.
Worst: IVF Wrecks Couple's Sex Lives
One of the first-ever studies to look at how in vitro fertilization affects couple's sex lives confirmed what many women and their partners already knew: <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/01/ivf-hurts-women-sex-life_n_2058481.html">Fertility treatment can take a serious toll on women's sexual satisfaction and overall sexual function</a>. For many infertile couples, sex becomes mechanical and rigid, no longer a source of fun, according to information presented at the American Public Health Association meeting last fall.
Worst: Birth Control Tied To Heart Attack, Stroke
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/13/birth-control-risks-heart-attack-stroke-danish-study_n_1594765.html">Hormonal contraception increases women's risk of heart attack and stroke</a>, a June study in the <em>New England Journal of Medicine</em> found. But the good news, within that unsettling news, is that the risks to women at an individual level were found to be very, very small. "The risk might be as much as two times greater, but when you know that the rates [of arterial thrombosis] are 1 in 10,000, you're just bringing it up to 2 to 4 in 10,000," Dr. Kathy Hoeger, director of the University of Rochester's Strong Fertility Center (who did not work on the study), told HuffPost. "It's a significant finding, and we wouldn't want to minimize that," she said. "But the risk is relatively small."
Worst: Depression Common In Teenage Girls
A July report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration suggested that adolescent <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/25/depression-girls_n_1701953.html">girls suffer from depression at a rate nearly three times that of their male peers</a>. It also found that between the ages of 12 and 15, the percentage of girls who've experienced at least one episode of major depression triples -- jumping from 5 to 15 percent. The take-away from that report, mental health experts said, is that health care providers need to look for signs of depression earlier than they might think.
Worst: Early Menstruation May Up Heart Attack Risk
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/15/first-period-cardiovascular-disease-menstruation-study_n_2138661.html">Women who got their periods early on were more likely to have a higher body mass index</a> (a measure of weight relative to height), a larger waist and more body fat as adults, a fall study in the <em>Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism</em> found. The implications of these results, researchers said, are potentially serious: Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, the <a href="http://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fs_women_heart.htm">number-one killer </a>of women in the U.S.
Best: Major Medical Groups Backed Birth Control
Politically-speaking, 2012 was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-belkin/women-voters-won-candidates-listening_b_2088705.html">a tumultuous year</a> in terms of the rhetoric that swirled around women's reproductive rights. But, thankfully, when it came to the U.S.' major medical organizations, the message was strong and clear: Women and girls should have easy, unobstructed access to birth control, they said. In November, the American College and Obstetricians of Gynecologists -- the nation's biggest group of OBGYNs -- said <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/21/over-the-counter-birth-control-american-college-of-obstetricians-gynecologists_n_2170450.html">birth control pills should be sold over the counter</a>, just like condoms. A week later the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement saying that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/26/emergency-contraception_n_2171289.html">emergency contraception is both safe and effective</a>. The group also urged doctors to push for allowing girls under the age of 17 to get it without a prescription.
Best: Scientists Confirm The Big (Vaginal) "O"
Well, kind of. A series of essays published in April in the <em>Journal of Sexual Medicine</em> generally concluded that the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/emma-gray/female-orgasm-vaginal-debate_b_1417377.html">clitoral orgasm and vaginal orgasm are distinct events</a>. "Their overarching conclusion is that the clitoral orgasm (whose existence no one seems to dispute) is a separate phenomenon from vaginal orgasm (VO)," HuffPost's Emma Gray reported. And though a few contributing experts argued there isn't a difference between the two, that one journal issue went a long way in supporting the idea that every woman is different and every woman experiences sexual pleasure in her own unique way.
Best: HPV Vaccine Does NOT Up Promiscuity
In October, a major study published in the journal <em>Pediatrics</em> concluded that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/15/hpv-vaccine-sexual-activity-study_n_1959630.html">vaccinating girls against the human papillomavirus (HPV) -- which is sexually transmitted -- does <em>not</em> make them promiscuous</a>. Researchers hoped the research would effectively dead concerns about "disinhibition" among teenagers who get the vaccine and encourage more of them -- and their caregivers -- to follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation that all girls age 11 or 12 (or up to age 26) get three full doses.
Best: New HPV Vaccine Shows Promise
It was a small study of a still highly experimental vaccine, but the results were promising: 18 women with a precancerous condition caused by an HPV infection who were given a form of the vaccine subsequently <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/12/hpv-new-vaccine_n_1961315.html?utm_hp_ref=womens-health">produced immune cells capable of killing infected cells</a>, MyHealthNewsDaily reported. The findings suggest that it might be possible to use the vaccine to clear chronic HPV infections -- and help prevent the development of cervical cancer in women who are already infected.
Best: IUDs Get A Big Thumbs Up
In the spring intrauterine devices, a.k.a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/23/birth-control-pill-contraception_n_1540382.html">IUDs, were shown to be <em>highly</em> effective at preventing pregnancy</a> in findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Indeed, that bit of research showed that the failure rate for IUDs was far lower than the failure rate for birth control pills (0.27 per 100 participant-years versus 4.55 in women taking the pill) -- largely because IUDs eliminate human error. "The long-acting reversible contraception methods are forgettable," study author Dr. Jeffrey Peipert, vice chair of clinical research in the Washington University in St. Louis' Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology told HuffPost. "You put them in place and they work very well."
Best: Women's Happiness Gene Found
Over the summer, a study in the journal <em>Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry</em> found that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/30/happiness-gene-women-maoa-study_n_1844504.html">women have a happiness <em>gene</em></a> (yippee!). Monoamine oxidase A, or MAOA, is connected to higher levels of self-reported happiness in women, researchers found. Though men can also have the same type of MAOA gene, they don't experience the same jump in self-reported happiness as women -- for reasons that are still not entirely clear.