A new study found that breastfeeding lowers the risk of heart disease or stroke. It also reduces the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared to women who don’t breastfeed. These new findings have important implications for nursing moms for several reasons.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease remains the leading cause of death for women in the United States. It’s responsible for about one in every five female deaths. However, it impacts African American and white women more than any other race. Nearly 1 in 16 women age 20 and older have coronary heart disease.
Women are more likely than men to have heart attack symptoms unrelated to chest pain. Common signs of heart attacks in women include shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and jaw, neck, or back pain. Because these symptoms mimic many other health problems, heart disease often goes unnoticed in women.
Lifestyle Changes, Along With Breastfeeding
Lifestyle changes and regular doctor visits can lower the risk of heart disease. However, the latest study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA) found that breastfeeding may help prevent heart problems. The research is part of a special issue: JAHA Spotlight on Pregnancy and Its Impact on Maternal and Offspring Cardiovascular Health. It features 12 studies investigating cardiovascular health during pregnancy for both mother and child.
Breastfeeding offers numerous well-documented benefits for children. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nursing lowers the risk of respiratory infections and death from infectious diseases. It also positively impacts the mother’s health, reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer.
The senior author is Peter Willeit, M.D., M.Phil., Ph.D., professor of clinical epidemiology at the Medical University of Innsbruck in Innsbruck, Austria. He said this about the study:
“Previous studies have investigated the association between breastfeeding and the risk of cardiovascular disease in the mother; however, the findings were inconsistent on the strength of the association and, specifically, the relationship between different durations of breastfeeding and cardiovascular disease risk. Therefore, it was important to systematically review the available literature and mathematically combine all the evidence on this topic.”
Findings From the Study on Benefits of Breastfeeding
For the study, researchers performed a meta-analysis of eight previous studies conducted between 1986 and 2009. The research included Australia, Japan, China, Norway, the U.S., and one multinational study. The team reviewed the health records of nearly 1.2 million women and investigated the relationship between nursing and cardiovascular risk in mothers.
The first author, Lena Tschiderer, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the Medical University of Innsbruck, said the following:
“We collected information, for instance, on how long women had breastfed during their lifetime, the number of births, age at first birth, and whether women had a heart attack or a stroke later in life or not.”
Important discoveries from the meta-analysis:
- 82% of the women reported breastfeeding at some point in their life.
- Compared to women who never breastfed, women who reported nursing had an 11% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
- Over about ten years, women who breastfed at some time in their lives were 14% less likely to develop coronary heart disease. They also had a 12% lower risk of suffering from a stroke and a 17% reduced chance of dying from cardiovascular disease.
- Breastfeeding was more pronounced in women who breastfed for one year or longer. They had an even lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease in their lifetime than women who did not breastfeed.
- The number of pregnancies or age of the women did not impact cardiovascular disease risk.
The WHO and the CDC recommend exclusively nursing babies until they turn six months old, at minimum. However, only 25% of infants in the United States receive breastmilk solely for their first six months. According to the CDC, low breastfeeding rates add over $3 billion to medical costs in the U.S.
Importance of Breastfeeding When Possible
“It’s important for women to be aware of the benefits of breastfeeding for their babies’ health and also their own personal health,” Willeit said. “Moreover, these findings from high-quality studies worldwide highlight the need to encourage and support breastfeeding, such as breastfeeding-friendly work environments, and breastfeeding education and programs for families before and after giving birth.”
Mothers in the U.S., significantly, could benefit from nursing their children. Unfortunately, the maternal death rate in America remains the highest among industrialized countries, with cardiovascular disease as the leading cause. However, the American Heart Association estimates that proper maternal health care could prevent two out of three deaths during pregnancy.
“While the benefits of breastfeeding for infants and children are well established, mothers should be further encouraged to breastfeed their infants knowing that they are improving the health of their child and improving their own health as well,” said Shelley Miyamoto, M.D., FAHA, chair of the American Heart Association’s Council on Lifelong Congenital Heart Disease and Heart Health in the Young (Young Hearts). She’s also the Jack Cooper Millisor Chair in Pediatric Heart Disease and director of the Cardiomyopathy Program at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora.
She added that raising awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding could help mothers make an informed decision about their child’s health. Miyamoto noted that mothers should feel empowered knowing that nursing lowers heart disease risk while providing optimal nutrients for children.
One noted limitation
The only limitation of the meta-analysis is this. The scientists lacked health information for women who breastfed for over two years.
“If we had this additional data, we would have been able to calculate better estimates for the association between lifetime duration of breastfeeding and development of cardiovascular disease in mothers,” Tschiderer said.
The Austrian Science Fund funded this study.
Final Thoughts on Study Linking Breastfeeding to Reduction in Heart Disease
Breastfeeding doesn’t just give the baby vital nutrients for growth and development. A new study reveals that it can also lower the risk of heart disease in mothers. The American Heart Association found that women had a 14% lower risk of developing coronary heart disease. Women who breastfed for one year or longer seemed to receive the most health benefits.