I’ve been an incredibly strong advocate of breast feeding since my earliest days as a family physician, writer, and medical journalist. But, my support and advocacy for my patients and my readers has primarily been due to (1) the many positive benefits for the baby and (2) the emotional benefits for the mother. Now comes news of an amazing study that suggests that a mother who breastfeeds may have reduced rates of for hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease when she gets a bit older. This is rather stunning information.
The New York Times reports that, according to a study to be published in the May issue of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, “women who have breast-fed” may be “at lower risk than mothers who have not for developing high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease decades later, when they are in menopause.”
Moreover, the “benefits increase with duration of past breastfeeding.”
Using data from the Women’s Health Initiative, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh found that “women who had breast-fed for more than a year in their entire lifetimes were almost 10 percent less likely than those who had never breast-fed to have had a heart attack or a stroke in their postmenopausal years.”
For the study, the investigators “asked 139,681 women who went through … menopause in their fifties about their breastfeeding history,” the UK’s Daily Mail adds.
The team found that mothers “who breastfed for more than a year were 12 percent less likely to have high blood pressure and 20 percent less likely to have diabetes and high cholesterol.”
BBC News points out that “the study adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting breastfeeding has health benefits for both mother and baby.
Research has found that breastfeeding reduces a woman’s risk of ovarian and breast cancer and osteoporosis in later life.”
For the baby, breast milk is “credited with protecting against obesity, diabetes, asthma, and infections of the ear, stomach, and chest.”
While “it has been suggested that breastfeeding may reduce cardiovascular risk by reducing fat stores in the body,” the authors “believe the effect is more complex, with the release of hormones stimulated by breastfeeding also playing a role.”
The study also found that “the longer mothers breastfed, the more apparent the cardiovascular benefit,” AFP reports.
Mothers “who breastfed for at least one month had lower blood pressure, better cholesterol, and less frequent diabetes, all known factors for cardiovascular risk,” but “women who breastfed for more than a full year had their cardiovascular risk reduced by 10 percent, said lead researcher Eleanor Bimla Schwartz, a professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences.”
The UK’s Press Association noted that, “on average, 35 years had passed since the women had last breastfed, suggesting the benefits of breastfeeding last many years.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Dr. Indu Poornima, director of the Center for Women’s Heart Disease at Allegheny General Hospital, pointed out a weakness in the study, “since the data was based on the women’s memory of how long they had breastfed many years earlier.”
In addition, Dr. Poornima said that both the present study “and the Nurses’ Health Study failed to account” for “pregnancy-induced hypertension…that makes” women “more prone to developing hypertension later in life.”
HealthDay noted that even though “it’s well-established that breastfeeding can benefit infant health … just 11 percent of American mothers breast-feed exclusively for the first six months of their babies’ lives.
In addition to benefiting babies, breastfeeding can help women lose pregnancy weight, since breastfeeding helps women burn almost 500 extra calories a day.”
Dr. Nieca Goldberg, director of the New York University Langone Medical Center Women’s Heart Program, pointed out that “breastfeeding really mobilizes fat stores and has an impact on cholesterol. It also increases levels of [the hormone] oxytocin, which can relax blood vessels.”
Other in-depth reports can be found on WebMD, MedWire, and MedPage Today also covered the story.