Breastfeeding may help lower a woman's risk of stroke later in life

Children who are breastfed may be less likely to be obese as teenagers, even if they are genetically predisposed to the condition.

New US research has added to the growing body of evidence that suggests breastfeeding can be beneficial for mothers as well as babies, finding that women who breastfeed may have a lower risk of stroke post-menopause.

Carried out by researchers at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita, the study is one of the first to look at a possible link between breastfeeding and a mother's risk of stroke, which is the fourth leading cause of death among women aged 65 and older and the third leading cause of death among Hispanic and black women in the same age group.

The team followed 80,191 women for a period of 12.6 years who had an average age of 63.7 years at the start of the study. All of the women had at least one child and 58 percent reported breastfeeding at some point.

After taking into account non-modifiable stroke risk factors such as age and family history, the researchers found that stroke risk among women who breastfed their babies was on average 23 percent lower in all women compared to those who never breastfed.

In addition, they also found that it was 21 percent lower in white women, 32 percent lower in Hispanic women, and 48 percent lower in black women.

Breastfeeding for a relatively short period of time, 1-6 months, was associated with a 19 percent lower risk of stroke, with a longer reported length of breastfeeding associated with a greater reduction in risk.

As an observational study the researchers couldn't establish a cause-and-effect relationship between breastfeeding and lower stroke risk.

Moreover, the study was also limited by the relatively small number of strokes that occurred during the follow-up period, with just 3.4 percent of the women experiencing a stroke during the study and 1.6 percent reporting having had a stroke before the study.

However, the researchers added that thanks to the large sample size they were able to adjust the findings for various factors and the positive effect of breastfeeding remained strong.

"Some studies have reported that breastfeeding may reduce the rates of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and risk of developing Type 2 diabetes in mothers. Recent findings point to the benefits of breastfeeding on heart disease and other specific cardiovascular risk factors," said Lisette T. Jacobson, lead author of the study.

"If you are pregnant, please consider breastfeeding as part of your birthing plan and continue to breastfeed for at least six months to receive the optimal benefits for you and your infant."

"Breastfeeding is only one of many factors that could potentially protect against stroke. Others include getting adequate exercise, choosing healthy foods, not smoking and seeking treatment if needed to keep your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar in the normal range," Jacobson said.

The findings can be found published online in the Journal of the American Heart Association.