Breastfeeding could help women reduce their chances of having a stroke and of developing and dying of heart disease, according to an analysis of data from studies around the world.
The paper was published Tuesday in a special edition focusing on pregnancy in the Journal of the American Heart Association. It pooled health data for nearly 1.2 million women from eight studies conducted between 1986 and 2009 in Australia, China, Norway, Japan and the U.S. and one multinational 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," senior author Dr. Peter Willeit said in a news release. He is a professor of clinical epidemiology at the Medical University of Innsbruck in Austria.
The new analysis systematically reviewed the available literature and mathematically combined all the evidence, he said.
Because of its benefits for children's health, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have long recommended women breastfeed their babies exclusively for at least the first six months of life. In the U.S., according to the CDC, just 1 in 4 mothers breastfeed babies for the recommended six months, with Black babies less likely to be breastfed than white babies for any length of time.
A growing body of research shows breastfeeding also can benefit the health of the mother. It has been linked to lower risks for breast and ovarian cancer as well as for Type 2 diabetes.
The authors of this meta-analysis were able to show women who breastfed at some point during their lives were 11% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease than those who had never breastfed. Over a 10-year average follow-up period, they were 14% less likely to develop heart disease, 12% less likely to have strokes and 17% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of maternal death in the U.S., which has the highest maternal death rate of any developed country. According to a 2021 policy statement from the American Heart Association, 2 in 3 pregnancy-related deaths may be preventable.
Willeit said the findings "from high-quality studies conducted around the world" show the importance of encouraging and supporting breastfeeding by creating friendlier work environments for new mothers and education programs for families before and after a birth.
"Mothers should be further encouraged to breastfeed their infants knowing that they are not only improving the health of their child, but improving their own health as well," Dr. Shelley Miyamoto said in the news release. She is director of the Cardiomyopathy Program at Children's Hospital Colorado in Aurora.
"Raising awareness regarding the multifaceted benefits of breastfeeding could be particularly helpful to those mothers who are debating breast versus bottle feeding," said Miyamoto, who was not involved in the new study. "It should be particularly empowering for a mother to know that by breastfeeding, she is providing the optimal nutrition for her baby while simultaneously lowering her personal risk of heart disease."
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