According to a new study, women over the age of 50 who breastfed their babies performed better on cognitive tests than women who had never breastfed. The findings suggest that breastfeeding may improve cognitive performance in postmenopausal women and may have long-term benefits for the mother’s brain.
A new study led by UCLA Health researchers discovered that women over the age of 50 who breastfed their babies performed better on cognitive tests than women who had never breastfed. The findings, published in Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, suggest that breastfeeding may improve cognitive performance in postmenopausal women and may have long-term benefits for the mother’s brain.
“While many studies have found that breastfeeding improves a child’s long-term health and well-being, our study is one of the few that has looked at the long-term health effects for women who had breastfed their babies,” said Molly Fox, PhD, the study’s lead author and an Assistant Professor in the UCLA Departments of Anthropology and Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences. “Our findings, which show superior cognitive performance in breastfed women over 50, suggest that breastfeeding may be ‘neuroprotective’ later in life.”
While many studies have found that breastfeeding improves a child’s long-term health and well-being, our study is one of the few that has looked at the long-term health effects for women who had breastfed their babies.Molly Fox
Cognitive health is critical for aging adults’ well-being. However, when cognition begins to deteriorate after the age of 50, it can be a strong predictor of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), the leading form of dementia and cause of disability among the elderly, with women accounting for nearly two-thirds of those affected.
Many studies also show that different stages of a woman’s reproductive life, such as menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause, can be associated with a higher or lower risk of developing various health conditions, such as depression or breast cancer, but few studies have looked at breastfeeding and its impact on women’s long-term cognition. Among those that have, there has been conflicting evidence as to whether breastfeeding is associated with improved cognitive performance or an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease in postmenopausal women.
“What we do know is that there is a positive correlation between breastfeeding and a lower risk of other diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease and that these conditions are strongly linked to a higher risk of AD,” said Helen Lavretsky, MD, senior author of the study and a professor at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
“Because breastfeeding has also been found to help regulate stress, promote infant bonding, and lower the risk of post-partum depression, implying acute neurocognitive benefits for the mother, we suspected that it could also be associated with long-term superior cognitive performance for the mother,” Dr. Fox added.
To find out, the researchers examined data from women who took part in two cross-sectional randomized controlled 12-week clinical trials at UCLA Health: 1) Depressed participants were included in the study “Brain Connectivity and Response to Tai Chi in Geriatric Depression and Cognitive Decline.” 2) The “Reducing Alzheimer’s Disease Risk in High-Rise Women Through Yoga or Memory Training” study, which included non-depressed participants with some subjective memory complaints and risk for heart disease.
115 women chose to participate in the two trials, with 64 classified as depressed and 51 classified as non-depressed. All participants completed a battery of psychological tests designed to assess learning, delayed recall, executive functioning, and processing speed. They also completed a questionnaire about their reproductive history, which included questions about when they first began menstruating, the number of complete and incomplete pregnancies, the length of time they breastfed each child, and their age at menopause.
Notably, none of the participants had dementia or other psychiatric diagnoses such as bipolar disorder, alcohol or drug dependence, neurological disorders, or other disabilities that prevented them from participating or taking any psychoactive medications. There was no difference in age, race, education, or other cognitive measures between depressed and non-depressed participants.
The researchers’ analysis of data collected from questionnaires on the women’s reproductive history revealed that approximately 65 percent of non-depressed women had breastfed, compared to 44 percent of depressed women. All non-depressed participants reported at least one completed pregnancy, whereas 57.8 percent of depressed participants reported at least one completed pregnancy.
The cognitive tests also revealed that women who had breastfed outperformed women who had not breastfed in all four cognitive tests measuring learning, delayed recall, executive functioning, and processing, regardless of whether they were depressed or not.
Separate analyses of the data for the depressed and non-depressed groups revealed that in the women who were not depressed, all four cognitive domain scores were significantly associated with breastfeeding. However, only two of the cognitive domains – executive functioning and processing speed – were significantly associated with breastfeeding in depressed women.
Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that breastfeeding for a longer period of time was associated with improved cognitive performance. When all of a woman’s breastfeeding time was added up, they discovered that women who did not breastfeed had significantly lower cognitive scores in three out of four domains compared to women who had breastfed for 1-12 months, and in all four domains compared to women who had breastfed for more than 12 months. Women who had breastfed for the longest periods of time scored the highest on cognitive tests.
“Future research will be required to investigate the relationship between women’s breastfeeding history and cognitive performance in larger, more geographically diverse groups of women. Given that women today breastfeed less frequently and for shorter periods of time than in the past, it is critical to better understand the health implications of breastfeeding for women “Dr. Fox stated.