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Mar 26, 2018

Breastfeeding May be Protective for Heart Health

Breastfeeding shows heart health benefits for some mothers, including those with normal blood pressure.

Breastfeeding isn’t just beneficial for the baby, based on a recent study that found women with normal blood pressure during pregnancy who breastfed had better markers of heart health than those who never breastfed.

Presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 67th Annual Scientific Session, this study looked at the long-term health benefits of breastfeeding. Many studies have highlighted the immediate benefits of breastfeeding, such as weight loss, stronger bones and faster healing after delivery. However, fewer studies have explored the long-term effects of breastfeeding on heart health.

The recent analysis included data from the POUCH and POUCHmoms Study, which focus on women’s’ health during and after pregnancy. The analysis included 678 women who completed health assessments at more than 52 clinics across Michigan between 1998 and 2004. Participants were pregnant at the time of enrollment and repeated health assessments an average of 11 years later.

Follow-up assessments included information on how long women breastfed after each pregnancy and measured key markers of heart health, such as blood pressure and cholesterol.

Overall, researchers found that women who breastfed longer were older, less likely to be overweight and had higher levels of income and education. After adjusting for these factors, researchers found that women with normal blood pressure during pregnancy who breastfed for six months or more had significantly higher levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol and lower triglycerides than those who never breastfed. Women who breastfed for at least six months also appeared to have healthier arteries based on imaging tests.

It’s important to note that in their analysis, researchers divided women into two groups – one that included women who had normal blood pressure during pregnancy and one with women who had high blood pressure during pregnancy. Studies show that high blood pressure during pregnancy may increase future heart risks. Researchers hoped to control for this factor, which could influence outcomes.

While researchers found an association between breastfeeding and improved health in women with normal blood pressure, this association was not found in women with high blood pressure during pregnancy. Authors note that this may be due to having too few women in this group, which made it difficult to detect differences in outcomes.

Still, experts are encouraged by findings.

“The study adds to the evidence that lactation is important not just for the baby but for the mother,” said Malamo Countouris, MD, a cardiology fellow at the University of Pittsburgh and the study’s lead author. “Breastfeeding seems to be cardioprotective in these women, as evidenced by improved cholesterol and markers of subclinical cardiovascular disease.”

However, authors continue to encourage future research on the issue, especially related to the long-term effects of pregnancy and breastfeeding.  “There’s a lot we still don’t understand about the accumulation of cardiovascular risks in women,” Countouris said. “Examining how pregnancy may increase or perhaps mitigate some of that risk can give us insights into the unique presentation and development of heart disease risk in women.”

Questions for You to Consider

  • How can I reduce my risk for heart disease?
  • Healthy lifestyle choices are key to reducing risk for heart disease. By eating a heart-healthy diet and staying physically active, you can help significantly reduce heart disease risk. Knowing your numbers—body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar—and family history is also important so that you can address any risk factors you may have for heart disease.
  • What is hypertension?
  • Hypertension, often referred to as high blood pressure, occurs when the force of blood against the artery walls is too high. High blood pressure is often referred to as the “silent killer,” because it often causes no symptoms and if left uncontrolled, increases risk for heart attack and stroke.

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