Experts say the longer a woman breastfeeds her baby, the lower her risk of heart disease after menopause.
You’ve no doubt heard about the benefits of breastfeeding for babies. Mother’s milk is ideal nutrition and it contains antibodies that help newborns fight off bacteria and viruses.
Then there are the benefits for nursing mothers.
Breastfeeding can help them lose pregnancy weight faster. And it is a way to bond with their infants.
There’s also research that indicates breastfeeding may help mothers ward off postpartum depression and certain cancers.
Now add to that list a benefit that may not show up until menopause.
A new study out of the University of Athens in Greece says women who breastfeed are less likely to develop heart disease later in life. And the longer they breastfeed, the less the risk.
The study was presented Friday at the European Society of Endocrinology’s annual meeting in Lyon, France.
The research hasn’t been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal.
Dr. Irene Lambrinoudaki, an associate of gynecological endocrinology at the University of Athens, is the study’s lead author. She and her colleagues looked at heart and blood vessel health in 283 postmenopausal women and measured that in relation to their history of breastfeeding.
The length of time the women breastfed ranged from 1 month to 80 months.
The researchers adjusted for risk factors like weight, age, cholesterol levels, and smoking. They found that the women who breastfed had less arterial stiffness and atherosclerosis.
“These findings indicate that breastfeeding lowers the risk of heart disease in women,” Lambrinoudaki said in a news release.
The researchers said the heart health benefits are likely related to the higher levels of the hormone prolactin in breastfeeding mothers. Prolactin is believed to reduce the risk of diabetes, a major risk factor for heart disease.
Their findings are similar to a number of other studies conducted around the globe including
Researchers studied nearly 300,000 women in China. They found that women who breastfed their babies had an almost 10 percent lower risk of heart disease. The women who breastfed for two years or longer had an 18 percent lower risk of heart disease.
“I think it’s really important for these studies to be done in populations around the world,” Dr. Eleanor Bimla Schwarz, a professor in the Department of General Internal Medicine at the University of California Davis, told Healthline.
“When we have findings among U.S. women and Greek women that are the same, that adds to our confidence in thinking that these are meaningful findings,” she noted.
A decade ago, Schwarz was an assistant professor of medicine, obstetrics, and gynecology at the University of Pittsburgh.
“This new study adds to a growing body of work that indicates that breastfeeding does have really important effects on maternal health for many years on into menopause,” Schwarz said.
Breastfeeding advocates say this kind of study is important.
Cheryl Lebedevitch is senior workplace program manager and policy analyst at the United States Breastfeeding Committee, a nonprofit coalition of organizations that promotes policies and practices that support breastfeeding.
“Given the tremendous amount of money we in the U.S. spend on healthcare, it is critical to have research free from industry influence to help guide how the nation and the world invests in public health,” Lebedevitch told Healthline.
Schwarz said it’s definitely an area that deserves more study, but there may be some important takeaways.
“I think it really becomes a question of what do we need to do to help mothers who want to breastfeed succeed and recognize that not every mother is able to breastfeed,” she said.
“The goal is not to be blaming or shaming mothers who are not able to breastfeed, especially at places where they’re not given maternity leave,” she added. “But rather make sure we’re providing all the support that might be helpful.”
“Let them know this is something that is not just beneficial to their baby’s health, but there’s a lot of data that seems like it’s important for maternal health as well,” Schwarz said.
The researchers at the University of Athens are already at work on the next steps beyond their current study.
“We are now interested in looking at establishing the underlying causes of this protective effect,” Lambrinoudaki said.
The team is investigating the molecular mechanisms of how prolactin affects blood sugar, a known major risk factor for heart disease.
They hope this research might discover new ways to target heart disease for everyone, not just breastfeeding women.