Breastfeeding has long been linked to a wide range of health benefits for new mothers, including a lower risk of developing heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. new study published in January 2022 in the Journal of the American Heart Association suggests that even a brief period of breastfeeding may provide some long-term protection against heart disease.
The analysis included data from eight studies involving a total of 1.19 million women who first gave birth at an average age of 24.6 years. These women had an average of 2.3 births and 82% of them said they had breastfed their babies.
The researchers followed these women for about a decade, starting at an average age of 51.3, to see if a history of breastfeeding was associated with better heart health outcomes.
Compared to women who did not breastfeed, those who did were 14% less likely to have coronary heart disease (clogged arteries that can lead to heart attacks) and 12% less likely to have a stroke. Breastfeeding was also associated with a 17% lower risk of dying from events like heart attacks and strokes.
Although the analysis was not designed to examine why breastfeeding might have benefits for the heart, there are several possible explanations for this link, says the study’s lead author. Peter Willeit, MDprofessor of clinical epidemiology at the Medical University of Innsbruck in Austria.
“For example, breastfeeding might facilitate faster weight loss after childbirth,” says Dr. Willeit. “This may be beneficial, as high weight is known to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.”
Beyond that, breastfeeding can also reduce the risk of metabolic disorders like high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes, which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease, Willeit says.
Breastfeeding for a total of up to 12 months over a lifetime was associated with better heart outcomes, but researchers did not have enough long-term data on how cumulative breastfeeding times longer could benefit women. The researchers also lacked data on individual participants that could have helped them make more accurate assessments of the impact of different breastfeeding durations on cardiovascular outcomes.
Breastfeeding associated with lower fat deposits
“The beneficial effects of breastfeeding on a woman’s cardiometabolic health are powerful,” says Erica Gunderson, PhDsenior researcher at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research in Oakland, California.
“Studies have shown that breastfeeding is associated with more favorable metabolic profiles, but also with lower maternal fat deposition in the heart, liver and belly many years after childbirth, which may potentially have long-term beneficial effects on cardiovascular health,” says Dr. Gunderson. .
In one study published in June 2021 in Jhe Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolismbreastfeeding was associated with significantly lower volumes of two types of body fat linked to heart problems: visceral fat, which accumulates around the midsection, and pericardial fat, which accumulates outside the heart.
Another one study published in January 2019 in the Journal of Hepatology looked at data from 844 women who gave birth to at least one child. According to the study, those who breastfed for more than six months had half the risk of developing fatty liver disease than those who breastfed for less than a month or who did not breastfeed at all.
Likewise, a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine looked at more than 1,000 mothers with what is called gestational diabetes, a form of metabolic disorder that develops during pregnancy and increases the risk of type 2 diabetes later in life. Women who exclusively breastfed were half as likely to develop type 2 diabetes as those who did not breastfeed at all.
A analysis published in October 2019 in Open JAMA Network examined the link between breastfeeding and type 2 diabetes in about 206,000 women and the link between breastfeeding and high blood pressure in about 255,000 women. In this analysis, women who breastfed for 12 months or more were 30% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes and 13% less likely to develop high blood pressure than women who had shorter breastfeeding durations.
Heart health after pregnancy, regardless of breastfeeding status
Even though breastfeeding has benefits for heart health, women who don’t breastfeed can still do a lot to help minimize their risk of developing or dying from cardiovascular disease, Willeit says.
Prevention can begin even before pregnancy. Before conception, women can focus on maintaining a healthy weight; eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and fiber; exercise regularly, even if it’s just a daily 20-minute walk; reduce alcohol consumption; and not to smoke, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
All of this can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, whether or not women breastfeed their babies. And all these tips are still valid during pregnancy, according to the AHA.
Long before their due date, expectant mothers should also try to get breastfeeding education and explore what support they might need if they want to breastfeed, says Gunderson. This may mean buying or renting a pump to express milk or finding a lactation consultant to help with any breastfeeding issues that may arise once their baby arrives.
Support is especially crucial for women who are at high risk for breastfeeding problems, including those with obesity, diabetes or high blood pressure, Gunderson says.
“Increased breastfeeding support for women, especially those with pregnancy complications immediately after childbirth, may have long-term benefits by improving cardiometabolic health and reducing the long-term risk of cardiovascular disease more later in life,” says Gunderson.