Barbara Higham reports on a new study that reveals six months of breastfeeding reduces mothers’ risk of heart disease.
Research to be presented at The American College of Cardiology’s 67th Annual Scientific Session this month (March, 2018) shows women with normal blood pressure during pregnancy and who breastfed their babies for at least six months following birth had better markers of cardiovascular health years later compared to women who never breastfed.
Earlier research has shown that mothers benefit from breastfeeding in the short term and much later in life, but this study examines heart health in young and middle-aged women.
678 participants who were pregnant at the time they enrolled in the study, had follow-up health assessments seven to 15 years later. Participants reported on how long they had breastfed after each pregnancy and researchers measured the women’s blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides (fats in the blood), and the diameter and thickness of the carotid artery (major blood vessels in the neck that supply blood to the brain, neck, and face). These are all factors commonly used to assess heart disease risk.
In their analysis, the researchers divided the women into three groups: those who never breastfed (157 women), those who breastfed for less than six months per pregnancy (284 women), and those who breastfed for six months or more per pregnancy (133 women). They analyzed separately women who had high blood pressure during pregnancy and those who had normal blood pressure during pregnancy. On average, women who breastfed longer were older, had a lower body mass index and had a higher socio-economic status. After adjusting for these and other potential confounding factors, the researchers found that women with normal blood pressure during pregnancy who breastfed for six months or more had significantly higher levels of HDL (high-density lipoproteins), or “good” cholesterol, lower triglycerides and healthier carotid artery thickness compared to those who had never breastfed.
Breastfeeding for at least six months appears to reduce risk of heart disease. While the research is still in its infancy, lead author of the study Malamo Countouris, MD, a cardiology fellow at the University of Pittsburgh, commented on the fact that breastfeeding leads to a release of the hormone oxytocin, which can lower blood pressure. It has also been observed that lactation appears to counteract some of the metabolic changes that occur during pregnancy.
The researchers said that larger future studies to track women for a longer period could help illuminate the factors that contribute to cardiovascular risk among women with normal and high blood pressure during pregnancy.
Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the world. Breastfeeding has a role to play in reducing women’s risk.
Countouris will present the study, “Lactation and Maternal Subclinical Cardiovascular Disease Among Women with and without a History of Hypertensive Disorders of Pregnancy,” on Saturday, March 10 at 3:45 p.m. ET. at The American College of Cardiology’s Annual Scientific Session in Orlando, an event that brings together cardiologists and cardiovascular specialists from around the world to share the newest discoveries in treatment and prevention.