The thing about research developments is that they are exactly that -- developments. Studies need to be replicated, with more participants, better controls and in more direct ways, then replicated again (and again), before they're considered definitive.
But that's not to say that studies aren't oftentimes fascinating, or that the scientific process doesn't have value. We at HuffPost Women believe in staying up on personal and public health research, reading it critically and discussing it with our health care providers to see what implications, if any, it may have for our wellbeing.
With that in mind, and with 2014 lurking just around the corner, we're pausing to look back at 13 of the most interesting things researchers learned about women's health in 2013.
1. IUDs are safe for teens.
Intrauterine devices, or IUDs, are small, t-shaped contraceptives that are inserted into a woman's uterus to help prevent pregnancy. Not only are they very effective (Planned Parenthood estimates that less than 1 in 100 women will get pregnant each year using an IUD), they're also safe for teens, according to a major study that included more than 90,000 participants, and found that serious complications occurred in less than 1 percent of women with an IUD.
2. Birth control may cost more in poorer neighborhoods.
A startling public-health investigation that looked at the cost of birth control control prescriptions in Florida found significant differences in cost: Nearly every prescription contraceptive cost less in wealthy zip codes than in low-income areas. Though the study was preliminary and only focused on one state, it raised big concerns about women's access to low-cost contraceptive options.
3. ... And the need for it is enormous.
Figures released in a United Nations study last March found that by 2015, a whopping 233 million women worldwide will have an unmet need for modern contraceptive options -- i.e. the pill, IUDs, condoms, vaginal barrier methods, emergency contraception or male and female sterilization. As one reproductive health expert put it, "Contraception is the single most cost-effective intervention that can reduce maternal mortality ... improve maternal and child health and help women and families achieve their desired family size."
4. Berries may slash women's heart attack risk.
An investigation published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association found that women who ate at least three servings of blueberries and strawberries each week had a 32-percent reduction in their heart attack risk when compared to women who ate them once a month or less -- even when those women ate plenty of other fruits and veggies. Researchers hypothesize that the reduced risk is due to a certain type of flavonoid in berries that may help prevent plaque build up, so it's possible that other fruits and vegetables (and even wine) could have similar effects, too.
5. Inflammation-spurring foods may increase depression risk.
An investigation that followed more than 43,000 women between 1996 and 2008 found that women who ate the most inflammation-linked foods and beverages (think refined grains, like bagels and pasta, soda and red meat) had a 29 percent higher risk of depression compared to those who ate the lowest amount. Of course, it's possible that depression may lead women to eat more of these foods, although researchers excluded women who had depression when the study started in order to help control for that effect.
6. Women's mercury levels are down.
A comprehensive report released by the Environmental Protection Agency this year showed that levels of mercury in the blood of women in the U.S. have dropped -- not necessarily because women are eating less fish overall, but because they're making smarter choices about the type of fish they eat. (Mercury has been linked to kidney and neurologic disorders.) Large, predatory fish, like shark and swordfish tend to be high in mercury.
7. Sleep (or lack thereof) can affect women's fertility ...
Research presented at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology's annual meeting found that women who work irregular shifts have a higher risk of infertility and greater menstrual disruption, while those who worked nights could have an increased risk of miscarriage. Though the study in no way establishes clear cause and effect, it's possible that disruptions to a woman's circadian rhythms, or internal clock, are to blame. Another 2013 study that focused on women undergoing in vitro fertilization found that moderate sleepers (i.e. women who got between seven to eight hours per night) had better pregnancy rates than those who slept too little (under six hours) or too much (nine to 11 hours).
8. ... But surviving cancer doesn't necessarily have to.
An encouraging study found that many women who had cancer as girls are able to have babies later on. When researchers looked at more than 3,500 sexually-active female cancer survivors between the ages 18 and 39 (who were diagnosed when they were 21 or younger), they found that two-thirds of those who tried to get pregnant for at least one year, but were unable to, eventually went on to conceive. Still, experts say there needs to be far more fertility preservation counseling provided to young women with cancer.
9. Exercising during pregnancy = a good thing.
Getting just 20 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week may help boost babies' brain activity, according to a study released in the fall. Though the study is preliminary, and researchers don't fully understand the underlying mechanisms, experts say that moderate exercise likely helps create an all around healthy fetal environment, which in turn is good for babies' brain development.
10. In some cases, lumpectomy is best.
According to a study by researchers at Duke University, women with early-stage breast cancer who are treated with lumpectomy (sometimes called breast conserving surgery) and radiation may have better survival rates than women who have a mastectomy. While independent experts cautioned against over-interpreting the findings, one told Medscape Medical News that the findings could serve a powerful purpose, "educat[ing] patients who do not require mastectomy, but choose it for psychologic reasons."
11. Young women haven't been swayed by mammography recommendations
It's been several years since the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force changed its guidelines to say that most women aged 40 to 49 should no longer get routine mammograms, but the revision doesn't seem to have changed what women do. A study published in the journal Cancer found that between 2008 and 2011, overall mammography rates only increased slightly, and did not decrease at all among that 40 to 49 demographic.
12. Women are more prone to allergies than men.
Post-puberty, women are more likely than men to have rhinitis (basically, nasal congestion), asthma and food allergies, according to findings presented at the 2013 annual meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. The reasons why women appear to be disproportionately affected are complex, but genetics and sex hormones both play a role in determining who develops allergies and asthma, a release for the research explained.
13. Bras make breasts ... sag?
One of the buzziest health stories of 2013 (albeit a light one) came out of France, where researchers claimed that bras provide no benefits, and may, in fact, be harmful to women's breasts over time -- concluding that women who eschewed them developed more muscle tissue, which helped provide natural support. In case you were looking for one, perhaps this is a reason to celebrate "No Bra Day" should it return next year?
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