A new survey of women in the United States suggests there are significant gaps in women's knowledge about their own reproductive health, as well as widespread misunderstandings about fertility and conception.
"It was surprising to me that between 40 and 60 percent of [respondents] had complete misconceptions about basic concepts relating to their own biology," study researcher Dr. Lubna Pal, an associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the Yale School of Medicine, told The Huffington Post. "We're not talking about heavy science; we're talking about basics."
The findings underscore a pressing need for better education at all levels, Pal said.
The results of the survey -- which was conducted in conjunction with First Response, a company that manufactures home pregnancy and ovulation tests -- were published in the journal Fertility and Sterility on Monday.
One major area of confusion was the ovulatory cycle. Ninety-five percent of the women correctly said that "ovulation" refers to the release of an egg from the ovary, but 25 percent did not know that so-called "normal" menstrual cycles can take between 25 and 35 days, and 40 percent were unable to identify when ovulation typically occurs within that cycle.
The survey also revealed some blind spots about fertility and best practices for conception. Many women in the survey did not know, for example, that factors like obesity and irregular menstrual cycles may have consequences for fertility. Roughly half believed erroneously that having sex more than once a day increases the chances of getting pregnant.
About 40 percent of the respondents said they believed that women's ovaries continue to produce new eggs during their reproductive years, which is not true. Women are born with all the eggs they will ever have, although preliminary studies hint that women might, in fact, be capable of making new ones.
In addition to incomplete understanding of reproductive concepts, the survey also showed that many women who were not actively attempting to get pregnant nevertheless had concerns about their ability to do so down the road. Among the women not currently trying to conceive, 40 percent said they were worried about their ability to get pregnant once they started trying, and 20 percent said they thought they might need fertility treatment.
National estimates suggest, however, that only 10 percent of women have difficulty getting or staying pregnant.
"If I'm aware of my age, and that I have no risk factors ... my worry about infertility should be no more than 10 percent," Pal told HuffPost. "But when I'm not even aware what the risks are, and when I have heard most of my information from women and blogs [about fertility struggles], I'm going to buy into the negative side without understanding the reality. And it's going to generate unnecessary anxiety."
Though time and resources are limited, women's health care providers must find ways to discuss basic concepts with patients, she continued, and schools must also provide clear information. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 22 states and the District of Columbia currently mandate sex education.
While many of the women in the survey said their health care providers were their primary source of information about their reproductive well-being, only 60 percent said they went at least annually, while 10 percent said they had never seen a women's health expert.
Pal told HuffPost that it is incumbent upon women to seek trustworthy information, and to become experts on their own bodies.
"We need to be forearmed with a sense of awareness about our own biology," she said. "It needs to happen."
The study included 1,000 women between the ages of 18 and 40. Roughly 80 percent of the respondents had at least some college education, and 43 percent reported they had an annual household income of over $50,000.