New study shows breastfeeding may help protect mothers against stroke

WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) A new study shows breastfeeding is not only good for babies, but there is also growing evidence that it is good for mothers too.

The research, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, shows a link between women who breastfed and their risk of stroke later in life, postmenopause. Researchers said that link became stronger for women who breastfed for longer than six months.

According to the study out of the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita, stroke is the fourth leading cause of death among women aged 65 and older, and it is the third leading cause of death among Hispanic and black women in that age group.

“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 Jacobson, lead author of the study and assistant professor in the department of preventive medicine and public health at the school of medicine.

Tessa Konen – a Wichita mother – breastfed all three of her children, including 5-month-old Swin. She admits it’s not always easy.

“If you want to go anywhere, you always have to plan to pump if you’re not with your baby. And where are you going to do that? And you’ll have to keep the milk cold,” said Konen. “You also have to keep track of how much water you drink and what you need to eat.”

Many women choose to breastfeed because of benefits to the baby, but this new research shows added health benefits for Mama as well.

Researchers analyzed data on 80,191 participants in the Women’s Health Initiative observational study, a large ongoing national study that has tracked the medical events and health habits of postmenopausal women who were recruited between 1993 and 1998.

Researchers found stroke risk among women who breastfed their babies was on average:

• 23 percent lower in all women,
• 48 percent lower in black women,
• 32 percent lower in Hispanic women,
• 21 percent lower in white women, and
• 19 percent lower in women who had breastfed for up to six months. A longer reported length of breastfeeding was associated with a greater reduction in risk.

“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,” Jacobson said.

A mother herself, Jacobson knows breastfeeding can be tough, even painful at first. She hopes this research encourages women not to give up.

“Stay the course and find help. Find support,” said Jacobson.

In Wichita, both Wesley Medical Center and Via Christi Hospital St. Joseph are designated as Baby-Friendly for the services they offer to help women succeed at breastfeeding.

Konen said she’s thankful breastfeeding has worked well for her.

“I’ve just been blessed to be able to be lucky enough to do it. I know that some moms don’t get that opportunity so I’m really blessed to be able to,” said Konen.

Many women cannot breastfeed. Jacobson said not to be discouraged.

“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.

Currently, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization recommend exclusive breastfeeding for six months, with continuation of breast feeding for one year or longer.

For babies’ health, the American Heart Association recommends breastfeeding for 12 months with transition to other additional sources of nutrients beginning at about four to six months of age to ensure sufficient micronutrients in the diet.

Co-authors are Erinn M. Hade, Ph.D.; Tracie C. Collins, M.D., M.P.H., M.H.C.D.S.; Karen L. Margolis, M.D., M.P.H.; Molly E. Waring, Ph.D.; Linda V. Van Horn, Ph.D., R.D.; Brian Silver, M.D.; Maryam Sattari, M.D., M.S.; Chloe E. Bird, Ph.D.; Kim Kimminau, Ph.D.; Karen Wambach, Ph.D.; and Marcia L. Stefanick, Ph.D. Author disclosures are on the manuscript.