Study finds breastfeeding could lower a mothers risk of a heart attack or stroke later in life

A new study published in the American Heart Association has found that the risk of a heart attack or stroke is reduced later in life in mothers who breastfeed their babies.

Credit: didesign02/Shutterstock.com

Breastfeeding is not beneficial for babies alone. Although previous studies have reported that mothers receive short-range health benefits from breastfeeding, like weight loss and lowered levels of cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose levels post-pregnancy, there are no clear findings of the long-term effects of breastfeeding on the risk of developing heart diseases in mothers.

Study findings in China reveal a 10% lower risk of developing heart disease or stroke in women who breastfeed their babies.

A research team from the University of Oxford, the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, and Peking University examined the data of 289,573 Chinese women who participated in the China Kadoorie Biobank study.  The average age of the women was 51 years. The participants provided detailed information about their reproductive history and other lifestyle-related factors.

Almost all the participants enrolled for the study were mothers and none had heart disease. An 8-year follow-up has found coronary heart diseases including heart attacks in 16,671 participants and stroke in 23,983 participants.

A range of risk factors for heart disease such as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and physical activity that could have biased the study outcomes were considered by the researchers. They noticed the following:

  1. The risk of developing heart diseases and stroke is reduced by 9% and 8%, respectively, in mothers who breastfeed their babies compared with women who had never breastfed.
  2. When the breastfeeding period is for 2 years or more the risk is reduced by 18% in heart diseases and by 17% in stroke.
  3. A lower risk of 4% in heart disease and 3% in stroke is associated in each additional 6 months of breastfeeding per infant.
Although we cannot establish the causal effects, the health benefits to the mother from breastfeeding may be explained by a faster "reset" of the mother's metabolism after pregnancy. Pregnancy changes a woman's metabolism dramatically as she stores fat to provide the energy necessary for her baby's growth and for breastfeeding once the baby is born. Breastfeeding could eliminate the stored fat faster and more completely,"

Co-author, Sanne Peters, Ph.D., research fellow at the University of Oxford, UK

The authors mentioned that women who breastfeed may be more likely to get involved in other health promoting behaviors that reduce heart disease risk, compared to women who do not breastfeed their babies.

As the study is observational, it does not prove the cause and effects. A different type ofstudy proving results through behavior needs to be done to confirm the information supplied by mothers as in this study regarding their history of breastfeeding.

Compared with Chinese women, the duration of breastfeeding is shorter in U.S. women. According to the World Health Organization, 97% of the women in this study had breastfed each of their infants for an average of 1 year as against 30% of women in the U.S in 2016.

Yet, the risk of coronary heart diseases is significantly less only in women with lifetime duration of breastfeeding of 2 years or more than those who never breastfed, reveals the U.S. Nurses' Health Study. The American Heart Association recommends 12 months of breastfeeding, if possible.

"The findings should encourage more widespread breastfeeding for the benefit of the mother as well as the child," said Zhengming Chen, M.B.B.S., D.Phil., senior study author and professor of epidemiology at the University of Oxford. "The study provides support for the World Health Organization's recommendation that mothers should breastfeed their babies exclusively for their first six months of life."

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