It’s long been known by medical experts that there are multiple health benefits to mothers breastfeeding their baby. These include, but aren’t limited to, boosting your baby’s immune system, reducing their risk of childhood leukemia, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even slashing their chances of getting cardiovascular disease in adulthood.
The benefits of breastfeeding are often oversold by the media. So, now that it’s been reported that the mother’s heart health is tied to breastfeeding too, we initially approached these links with skepticism. So what’s the truth behind the latest claim?
This study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, analyzed data on 289,573 women in China, aged 30 to 79, who were recruited for the research between 2004 and 2008. They were followed for eight years, through their urban or rural lives, and gave information on health and breastfeeding throughout.
At the same time, extra data was mined from insurance and health agencies to uncover any ailments they may have gone through during that time period. Nearly all of them gave birth to at least a single child during that time and most of them engaged in breastfeeding.
In total, there were 23,983 stroke cases and 16,671 cases of coronary heart disease, including heart attacks, during those eight years. Adjusting for factors like age, smoking, high blood pressure, activity level, overweight, and obesity, this revealed that mothers who breastfed had a 9 percent lower risk of heart disease and an 8 percent lower risk of stroke compared to non-breastfeeding mothers.
This applied to breastfeeding mothers who engaged in the activity for a 12-month period. Those who breastfed for up to 24 months had an 18 percent lower risk of heart disease and a 17 percent lower risk of stroke compared to those that didn’t.
The team, led by the University of Oxford, spoke to ResearchGate about their findings. They note that this is an interesting correlation, but their research was “not designed to prove cause and effect.”
“Pregnancy causes major changes to a woman’s metabolism as she stores fat to provide the energy necessary for her baby’s growth and for breastfeeding once the baby is born,” lead author Sanne Peters, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, explained. “Breastfeeding could eliminate the stored fat faster and more completely.”
Peters added that in Western cultures “women who breastfeed may also be more likely to engage in other beneficial health behaviors than women who do not breastfeed,” but this was not a trend detected in this study.
So at this point, the causal mechanism for this apparent correlation is unknown. Nevertheless, the study itself is rock solid – it just needs follow up research to confirm that correlation in this case is indicative of causation.