Over the recent decades, numerous benefits of breastfeeding have been described for babies. These range from breast milk’s easy digestibility and ideal composition, to stimulation of the immune system and reduced risk of allergies. However the benefits to mothers have been more qualitative – it’s easy and free among other considerations.
A new study, published in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, suggests that mothers can add another compelling reason to the list. It appears that women who breastfeed for more than a year have a lower rate of heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes. The study looked at more than 139,000 women and examined many health factors over decades.
All the women in the study were past menopause, with a median age of 63. Positive effects seem to endure long after the breastfeeding stage. Longer periods of breastfeeding, added up for multiple children, were associated with improved health benefits. The study’s most striking results compared women who breastfed for more than one year with those who had not breastfed at all (but who gave birth to at least one child).
In fact, not only were heart problems less common in breastfeeding moms, but they also were less likely to suffer from high blood pressure, as well as showing a significantly lower incidence of diabetes and high cholesterol. The implications are huge, as cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death for women in developed countries.
So what’s the mechanism for all these health effects? One possibility is that breastfeeding mobilizes a mother’s fat stores and thus reduces cardiovascular problems linked to high body fat levels. The current study suggests that hormones may be important as well. Adjusting for body mass index (BMI, a rough measure of body fat), the cardiovascular effects were still seen. It is possible that oxytocin, the hormone responsible for regulating lactation, has some role.
The benefits decrease after women reach about 70 years old, or as a woman’s breastfeeding years fade into her distant memory. However, the pattern was shared across many different races and ethnicities, suggesting universal benefits. The study was unable to look at the intensity of breastfeeding. It is possible that exclusively breastfeeding has more pronounced benefits – certainly that is true for infants. In fact, perhaps breastfeeding mothers were more likely to be breastfed themselves, leading to a complicated cycle of health benefits.
For mothers, previously established benefits include:
• lower rate of ovarian and breast cancers
• reduced risk of developing osteoporosis
• less risk of anemia
• often, a faster return to pre-pregnancy weight
Some of the important benefits for babies include:
• reduced risk of obesity and diabetes
• lower rates of asthma and eczema
• fewer ear infections, stomach infections, and chest infections
• reduced risk of SIDS, possibly
• improved mouth and tooth development
Why is it worth revisiting this issue? Despite the documented benefits of breastfeeding, in 2004, only 11% of US mothers breastfed exclusively for the first six months. The rates are also suboptimal in places like Canada and the UK. In general, while worldwide breastfeeding efforts have increased with improved education, many countries still have surprisingly low rates. Consider developing countries with poor water access and quality, yet where mothers depend on donated formula rather than breastmilk.
With all the health benefits already found, plus others likely to be described in the future, it simply makes sense to breastfeed whenever possible. After all, the system is in place and most babies come equipped with the appropriate technology. No sterilizing necessary.
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