It’s no secret that breastfeeding benefits the baby’s health in many ways. What is less well known is that the mother also benefits when she breastfeeds her offspring. Research suggests that women who breastfeed have health advantages over those who don’t; especially when it comes to heart and brain health.
Mothers Who Breastfeed Have a Lower Risk of Heart Diseases
The health benefits of breastfeeding for children are well known. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), breastfeeding is associated with fewer respiratory infections and a reduced risk of death from infectious diseases in breastfed children. Breastfeeding has also been linked to maternal health benefits, including a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, ovarian cancer and breast cancer.
Cardiovascular diseases are among the most common diseases in the western world, which makes it important to take all possible measures to protect your heart health in the best possible way. According to a meta-analysis of previous studies, women who have breastfed at some point in their lives are less likely to develop heart disease or stroke than women who have not. Breastfeeding is also associated with a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Previous research has found that the health benefits of breastfeeding for mothers are associated with a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.
Researchers led by Peter Willeit, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at the Medical University of Innsbruck, reviewed health information from eight studies conducted in Australia, China, Norway, Japan and the United States between 1986 and 2009, as well as from a multinational study. The review included medical records from nearly 1.2 million women (mean age at first birth 25 years) and analyzed the association between breastfeeding and the individual maternal cardiovascular risk. The review revealed:
82 percent of women said they had breastfed at some point in their lives. Compared to women who never breastfed, women who reported breastfeeding during their lifetime had an 11 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Over a median follow-up of 10 years, women who had breastfed at some point in their lives had a 14 percent reduced risk of developing coronary artery disease; 12 percent less likely to have strokes; and 17 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease. Women who have breastfed for 12 months or more over their lifetime appear to be less likely to develop cardiovascular disease than women who have not breastfed. There were no significant differences in cardiovascular disease risk between women of different ages or by number of pregnancies. The results were published in the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA).
Breastfeeding Also Has Positive Effect on the Brain
Research led by researchers at UCLA Health found that women over 50 who breastfed their babies perform better on cognitive tests than women who never breastfed. The findings, published in Evolution, Medicine and Public Health, suggest that breastfeeding may have a positive impact on the cognitive performance of postmenopausal women and may have long-term benefits for the mother’s brain. Good cognitive health is critical to well-being in old age. However, when cognition becomes impaired after age 50, it can be a strong predictor of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), the most common form of dementia and cause of disability in older people.
Because breastfeeding was also found to help regulate stress, promote infant bonding, and reduce the risk of postpartum depression, suggesting acute neurocognitive benefits for the mother, the researchers hypothesized that it may also be associated with a good long-term cognitive function. To find out, the experts analyzed data from women participating in two randomized, controlled, 12-week, cross-sectional clinical trials at UCLA Health: The Brain Connectivity and Response to Tai Chi in Geriatric Depression and Cognitive Decline included depressed participants. The study “Reduction of Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease in High-Risk Women with Yoga or Memory Training” involved non-depressed participants with some subjective memory problems and at risk for heart disease.
Better Cognitive Performance
Of the two studies, 115 women chose to participate, with 64 identified as depressed and 51 as nondepressed. All participants completed a comprehensive series of psychological tests measuring learning, delayed recall, executive functioning and processing speed. They also answered a questionnaire about their reproductive life history, which included questions about age of first menses, number of pregnancies, length of breastfeeding for each child, and menopause age.
The key findings from the researchers’ analysis of the women’s reproductive history questionnaires found that about 65% of non-depressed women reported breastfeeding, compared to 44% of depressed women. All non-depressed participants reported at least one completed pregnancy compared to 57.8% of the depressed participants. The results of the cognitive tests also showed that those women who breastfed, regardless of whether they were depressed or not, performed better on all four cognitive tests measuring learning, delayed memory, executive functioning and processing than women who had not breastfed. Separate analyzes of the data for the depressed and non-depressed groups also revealed that all four cognitive domain scores were significantly associated with breastfeeding in the non-depressed women. But in the depressed women, only two of the cognitive domains—executive functioning and processing speed—were significantly associated with breastfeeding.
Interestingly, the researchers also found that longer breastfeeding periods were associated with better cognitive performance. When they added up the total amount of time a woman had breastfed in her lifetime, they found that women who did not breastfeed had significantly lower cognitive scores in three out of four domains than women who had breastfed for 1 to 12 months , and in all four domains compared to women who breastfed for more than 12 months. Women who breastfed the longest had the highest cognitive test scores.
According to the researchers, these results from high-quality studies conducted worldwide underscore the need to promote and support breastfeeding. Because, while the benefits for babies are well documented, mothers should continue to be encouraged to breastfeed, knowing that they are greatly improving not only their child’s health but their own as well.