Breast-feeding May Lower Women's Risk of Heart Attack, Stroke

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Breast-feeding may literally be good for the heart: A new study suggests that breast-feeding may lower women's risk of heart disease and stroke.

For the study, researchers analyzed information from nearly 300,000 women in China. They found that those who were moms and had breast-fed were about 10 percent less likely to develop heart disease and stroke during the study period, compared to the moms who never breast-fed.

Although the new study cannot prove for certain that breast-feeding caused the women's lower risk of heart disease and stroke, "these findings suggest that interventions to increase the likelihood and duration of breast-feeding could have persistent benefits to maternal cardiovascular health," the researchers wrote in the June 21 issue of the Journal of the American Heart Association.

"Commitment from policy makers is needed to implement strategies in the health care system, communities and families, and the work environment that promote and support every woman to breast-feed," they said. [Top 10 Amazing Facts About Your Heart]

Future studies are needed to confirm the findings, and determine whether they apply to women living in other countries, the researchers said.

Previous studies have suggested that women who breast-feed experience short-term benefits, such as weight loss and lower cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose levels. But studies on the long-term benefits of breast-feeding on women's cardiovascular health have had mixed results.

In the new study, the researchers collected data from 289,573 Chinese women ages 30 to 79 who were asked about their history of childbirth and breast-feeding, as well as their medical history and other lifestyle factors. Nearly all of the women, 99 percent, had given birth, and 97 percent had breast-fed. None of the women had cardiovascular disease at the start of the study.

The women were followed up for eight years, and during this time, about 16,700 developed coronary heart disease (which includes heart attacks) and nearly 24,000 had a stroke.

The study found that, overall, mothers who breast-fed had a 9 percent lower risk of heart disease and an 8 percent lower risk of stroke, compared to mothers who did not breast-feed. Mothers who breast-fed for two years or more had an 18 percent lower risk of heart disease and 17 percent lower risk of stroke, than those who never breast-fed.

The findings held even after the researchers took into account factors that could affect heart disease risk, such as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.

Still, the study wasn't able to take into account some factors — like the women's diet — that could affect their heart disease risk.

In addition, breast-feeding practices that women in China use are different from those that women in the United States use — a greater percentage of women in China breast-feed, and women there typically breast-feed for a longer time, compared to women in the United States, the researchers said.

One previous study in the United States found that only women who breast-fed for at least two years had a lower risk of coronary heart disease, compared with women who did not breast-feed.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months of life, meaning that breast milk is the only source of food for the child (along with added vitamin and mineral supplements). After a baby reaches 6 months, the AAP recommends that mothers continue breast-feeding until infants reach age 1, but that they also introduce other foods during this time.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.