Breastfeeding May Reduce Risk of Heart Disease, Stroke

Women who breastfed for at least 2 years reduced the risk of heart disease by 18% and stroke by 17%.

A new study published by the Journal of the American Heart Association revealed that breastfeeding may provide substantial long-term benefits to mothers, including a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke.

Previous findings show that women may observe short-term benefits from breastfeeding, such as weight loss and lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose levels. The long-term cardiovascular benefits of breastfeeding were largely unknown.

Included in the study were data from 289,573 Chinese women with an average age of 51. All participants were also enrolled in the China Kadoorie Biobank study, where they provided information about their reproductive history and lifestyle. A majority of patients were mothers and none had cardiovascular disease at baseline.

After 8 years, the authors discovered that there were 16,671 cases of coronary heart disease and 23,983 cases of strokes.

The authors discovered that patients who breastfed had a 9% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease and an 8% lower risk of experiencing a stroke compared with patients who did not breastfeed, according to the study.

Notably, patients who breastfed for 2 or more years had their risk of heart disease reduced by 18% and their risk of stroke reduced by 17% compared with those who did not breastfeed.

The investigators also discovered that 6 months of breastfeeding per baby was linked to a 4% lower risk of heart disease and a 3% lower risk of stroke, according to the study.

These results remained true even after accounting for smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and physical activity.

“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,” said co-author Sanne Peters, PhD. “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.”

The authors said that patients who breastfeed may be more likely to engage in healthy behaviors that lower the risk of heart disease compared with women who do not breastfeed, according to the study.

Since the study was observational, the findings do not prove a cause and effect relationship. These results should be confirmed by additional studies to determine the relationship between breastfeeding and long-term health benefits.

Women in the United States typically breastfeed for a shorter period of time compared with women in China, with only 30% of American women breastfeeding for more than 12 months versus 90% of Chinese women, according to the study. These results suggest that breastfeeding may be beneficial for both the mother and the baby, according to the authors.

“The findings should encourage more widespread breastfeeding for the benefit of the mother as well as the child,” said senior study author Zhengming Chen, MBBS, DPhil. “The study provides support for the World Health Organization’s recommendation that mothers should breastfeed their babies exclusively for their first 6 months of life.”