An insightful new meta-analysis has indicated a range of cardiovascular benefits of breastfeeding, potentially safeguarding new mothers from various health conditions.
The novel research discovered a plethora of previously unknown benefits of breastfeeding, finding that women who breastfed were less likely to develop heart disease, a stroke, or die from cardiovascular disease than women who did not breastfeed.
The meta-analysis, published in the journal of the American Heart Association, comprises around a dozen research articles analysing a multitude of cardiovascular considerations for mother and child during pregnancy.
Known benefits of breastfeeding
The vast health benefits of breastfeeding are well-documented, with the World Health Organization (WHO) stating an association between reduced respiratory infection and a lower risk of death from infectious disease in children who were breastfed. Furthermore, previous research has suggested maternal health benefits of breastfeeding, such as lowering the risk for Type 2 diabetes, ovarian cancer, and breast cancer.
Peter Willeit, the senior author of the research and a professor of clinical epidemiology at the Medical University of Innsbruck in Innsbruck, Austria, said: “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. Therefore, it was important to systematically review the available literature and mathematically combine all of the evidence on this topic.”
Uncovering cardiovascular benefits
The researchers compiled health information from eight studies carried out between 1986 and 2009 in China, Australia, Japan, Norway, and the US to conduct their investigation and an additional multinational study. Moreover, the review included over 1.2 million health records of women with an average age of 25 at their first birth. This data was then employed to examine the relationship between breastfeeding and the mother’s individual cardiovascular risk.
First author Lena Tschiderer, a postdoctoral researcher at the Medical University of Innsbruck, commented: “We collected information, for instance, on how long women had breastfed during their lifetime, the number of births, age at first birth and whether women had a heart attack or a stroke later in life or not.”
The analysis identified that:
- 82% of the women had breastfed in their lifetimes,
- Women who reported they had breastfed had an 11% decreased risk of developing cardiovascular disease than those who never breastfed,
- Over an average follow-up period of 10 years, women who breastfed at some time in their life were 14% less likely to develop coronary heart disease, 12% less likely to suffer strokes, and 17% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease,
- Women who breastfed for 12 months or longer were demonstrated to be less likely to develop cardiovascular disease than those who did not,
- There was a notable contrast in cardiovascular disease risk among women of different ages or according to the number of pregnancies.
Although organisations like the WHO and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have outlined various benefits of breastfeeding, with both recommending that babies are breastfed for the first six months of life, only one in four infants receive breastmilk during this time. Furthermore, African American infants are less likely than white infants to be breastfed for any length of time, according to research from the CDC.
Willeit said: “It’s important for women to be aware of the benefits of breastfeeding for their babies’ health and also their own personal health. Moreover, these findings from high-quality studies conducted around the world highlight the need to encourage and support breastfeeding, such as breastfeeding-friendly work environments, and breastfeeding education and programmess for families before and after giving birth.”
Mitigating maternal deaths
The American Heart Association’s 2021 Call to Action Maternal Health and Saving Mothers policy statement revealed that, among developed countries, the US has the highest maternal death rate, with cardiovascular disease being the leading cause. In addition, the statement highlights racial and ethnic disparities in maternal health and that an estimated two out of three pregnancy-related deaths may be preventable.
Shelley Miyamoto, the chair of the American Heart Association’s Council on Lifelong Congenital Heart Disease and Heart Health in the Young (Young Hearts), said: “While the benefits of breastfeeding for infants and children are well established, mothers should be further encouraged to breastfeed their infants knowing that they are improving the health of their child and improving their own health as well.
“Raising awareness regarding the multifaceted benefits of breastfeeding could be particularly helpful to those mothers who are debating breast vs bottle feeding. 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.”
The researchers noted that a limitation of this meta-analysis is that little information was available about women who breastfed for longer than two years.
Tschiderer concluded: “If we had this additional data, we would have been able to calculate better estimates for the association between lifetime duration of breastfeeding and development of cardiovascular disease in mothers.”