Young women in a new study appeared to reap heart benefits years later
Young women who breastfeed may have healthier-looking arteries years later, compared with those who bottle feed, according to a new study.
Ample research shows breastfeeding is the healthiest option for babies, but the new study, which analyzed more than 800 U.S. women who gave birth at least once, makes the link between breastfeeding and the long-term health of the mom.
In the study, those who breastfed for a longer period of time had less thickening in the carotid artery wall once they reached middle age. Thickening in this artery wall is an early sign of atherosclerosis, which can lead to heart attack or stroke.
Researchers say thickening in the artery walls is considered “vascular aging.” In this study, lead researcher Erica Gunderson, of Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s division of research in Oakland, California, said women with the greatest carotid artery thickening were essentially three to five years older in terms of blood vessel health.
Previous research suggests women who breastfeed for a longer time are generally thinner, better educated and more physically active—both in young adulthood and 20 years later. Though this study’s findings do not prove cause-and effect, Gunderson and her team accounted for those factors and still found a connection between breastfeeding and artery-wall thickness.
All of the study’s participants had ultrasound scans of the carotid artery 20 years after entering the study. Women who breastfed for one month, or not at all, had more thickening in the carotid artery wall. Those who had breastfed for 10 months or longer had the clearest arteries.
Gunderson suspects breastfeeding might have a beneficial effect on body weight and blood pressure. “That’s consistent with what we’d expect,” Gunderson said. When a woman breastfeeds, her body releases the hormone oxytocin, which other research has linked to lower blood pressure.
Since many women choose to breastfeed because doing so offers the best nutrition for babies, the potential long-term heart benefits for their own health might just offer “more motivation,” Gunderson says.
We can use all the motivation we can get. Though American women are breastfeeding more, black women still have lower rates than women of other ethnicities.