The benefits of breastfeeding are numerous for the baby and the mom. But a new study has just added another incredible advantage to the list: breastfeeding can help lower a woman’s risk of developing heart disease later in life.
The study, which was conducted by researchers from the University of Athens in Greece, looked into the heart and blood vessel health of nearly 300 postmenopausal women, which they measured in relation to the women’s breastfeeding history. The researchers also adjusted for several factors that can affect heart health, such as weight, age, cholesterol levels, and smoking habits. Healthline also reports that the period when women breastfed their children ranged between 1 and 80 months.
The researchers then found that women who breastfed exhibited considerably lower levels of both heart disease and heart disease risk factors — specifically, they had “less arterial stiffness and atherosclerosis,” according to Healthline.
The researchers also found that the risk factors were lowest in the women who breastfed the longest.
“These findings indicate that breastfeeding lowers the risk of heart disease,” Irene Lambrinoudaki, a professor at the University of Athens and lead author of the study, said in a news release reported by WebMD.
Lambrinoudaki emphasized the study’s findings only associated breastfeeding with the risk of heart disease and did not attempt to provide causality between the two. However, the researchers proposed that one possible explanation behind their findings is the presence of higher levels of the hormone prolactin in breastfeeding women. WebMDreports that prolactin has been suggested to reduce the risk of diabetes, a well-known risk factor for heart disease.
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“If we can show causality for the protective effect, women will have one more reason to nurse their infants beyond the already documented benefits of breastfeeding for short- and long-term health of both them and their children,” said Lambrinoudaki.
Lambrinoudaki’s study is not the first to suggest that breastfeeding positively impacts a woman’s heart health. For example, one study of 500,000 Chinese women between ages 30 and 79 years showed that those who breastfed experienced a 10% lower risk of several major types of coronary heart disease, the risk goes down the longer a women breastfed her child, Verywell Familyreports.
Another study, which was conducted by Dr. Eleanor Bimla Schwarz, a professor in the Department of General Internal Medicine at the University of California Davis, along with her former colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, suggested that women who did not breastfeed tended to have a higher risk of developing heart disease.
“This new study adds to a growing body of work that indicates that does have really important effects on maternal health for many years on into menopause,” Dr. Schwarz toldHealthline in response to the University of Athens study.
Dr. Schwarz also shared that Lambrinoudaki’s findings are important information that can serve as support for all moms, whether they are able to breastfeed or not.
“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 toldHealthline.
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“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. But rather make sure we’re providing all the support that might be helpful.”