According to a meta-analysis of previous studies, women who breastfed at some point in their lives were less likely to develop heart disease or stroke than women who did not breastfeed. Breastfeeding was also linked to a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease in women. Previous research has also found that breastfeeding has maternal health benefits such as a lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
According to a meta-analysis published today in a pregnancy spotlight issue of the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA), open access, peer-reviewed journal of the American Heart Association, women who breastfed were less likely to develop heart disease or a stroke, or to die from cardiovascular disease, than women who did not breastfeed.
The special issue, JAHA Spotlight on Pregnancy and Its Impact on Maternal and Offspring Cardiovascular Health, contains a dozen research articles that examine various cardiovascular considerations for mother and child during pregnancy.
Breastfeeding has well-documented health benefits for children. Breastfed children have fewer respiratory infections and a lower risk of death from infectious diseases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Breastfeeding has also been linked to improved maternal health, including a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes, ovarian cancer, and breast cancer.
We collected information such as how long women had breastfed throughout their lifetime, the number of births, the age at first birth, and whether or not women had a heart attack or stroke later in life.Lena Tschiderer
“Previous studies investigated the relationship between breastfeeding and the risk of cardiovascular disease in the mother; however, the findings were inconsistent regarding the strength of the association and, more specifically, the relationship between different durations of breastfeeding and the risk of cardiovascular disease. As a result, it was critical to conduct a systematic review of the available literature and to mathematically combine all of the evidence on this topic “Peter Willeit, M.D., M.Phil., Ph.D., professor of clinical epidemiology at the Medical University of Innsbruck in Innsbruck, Austria, is the study’s senior author.
Researchers examined health data from eight studies conducted between 1986 and 2009 in Australia, China, Norway, Japan, and the United States, as well as one multinational study. The review included nearly 1.2 million women’s health records (average age 25 at first birth) and examined the relationship between breastfeeding and the mother’s individual cardiovascular risk.
“We collected information such as how long women had breastfed throughout their lifetime, the number of births, the age at first birth, and whether or not women had a heart attack or stroke later in life,” said first author Lena Tschiderer, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the Medical University of Innsbruck.
The review found:
- Eighty-two percent of the women said they had breastfed at some point in their lives.
- Compared to women who had never breastfed, women who had breastfed at some point in their lives had an 11% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
- Over a 10-year average follow-up period, women who breastfed at some point in their lives were 14% less likely to develop coronary heart disease, 13% less likely to have a stroke, and 17% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.
- Women who breastfed for 12 months or longer during their lifetime appeared to be less likely than women who did not breastfeed to develop cardiovascular disease.
- There were no discernible differences in cardiovascular disease risk among women of different ages or pregnancies.
Despite recommendations to breastfeed from organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), both of which recommend that babies be breastfed exclusively for at least six months, only one in every four infants receives only breastmilk for the first six months of life. According to the CDC, black infants in the United States are less likely than white infants to be breastfed for any length of time.
“It’s critical for women to understand the benefits of breastfeeding for the health of their babies as well as their own personal health,” Willeit said. “Moreover, these findings from high-quality studies conducted around the world highlight the need for breastfeeding-friendly work environments, as well as breastfeeding education and programs for families before and after giving birth.”
According to the American Heart Association’s 2021 Call to Action Maternal Health and Saving Mothers policy statement, the United States has the highest maternal death rate among developed countries, and cardiovascular disease is the leading cause. The statement, which outlines public policies to address racial and ethnic disparities in maternal health, states that an estimated two out of every three maternal deaths are preventable.
“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,” said Shelley Miyamoto, M.D., FAHA, chair of the American Heart Association’s Council on Lifelong Congenital Heart Disease and Heart Health in the Young (Young Hearts), the Jack Cooper Millisor Chair in Pediatric Heart Disease and 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 vs. bottle feeding.
“It should be especially empowering for a mother to know that she is providing optimal nutrition for her baby while also lowering her personal risk of heart disease by breastfeeding.”
One limitation of this meta-analysis is that little information about women who breastfed for more than two years was available. “We would have been able to calculate better estimates for the association between lifetime durations of breastfeeding and the development of cardiovascular disease in mothers if we had this additional data,” Tschiderer said.