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Breastfeeding protects women against cardiovascular disease, study finds

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Mother breastfeeding newborn baby infant at home

By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

Breastfeeding protects women against cardiovascular disease, according to new research.

A study of almost 1.2 million mothers found it reduced their risk of heart attacks, stroke and heart failure.

Suckling burns calories, and releases a hormone called oxytocin that relaxes blood vessels.

"Previous studies have investigated the association between breastfeeding and the risk of cardiovascular disease in the mother," said senior author Professor Peter Willeit.

"However, the findings were inconsistent on the strength of the association and, specifically, the relationship between different durations of breastfeeding and cardiovascular disease risk.

"Therefore, it was important to systematically review the available literature and mathematically combine all of the evidence on this topic."

via GIPHY

The Austrian team pooled data from eight studies across the world between 1986 and 2009. Participants were tracked for a decade, on average.

Women who breastfed were 11, 12 and 14 percent less likely to develop coronary artery disease, stroke or cardiovascular disease, respectively.

They were also 17 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease - compared to peers who never did.

In particular, those who breastfed for at least 12 months during their lifetime seemed less prone.

Epidemiologists at the Medical University of Innsbruck analyzed the health records of the individuals.

They looked at the relationship between breastfeeding and cardiovascular disease. Average age at first birth was 25.

"We collected information, for instance, on how long women had breastfed during their lifetime, the number of births, age at first birth and whether women had a heart attack or a stroke later in life or not," said first author Dr. Lena Tschiderer.

The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. Fewer than half (48 percent) continue beyond six to eight weeks.

Guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend six months.

Globally only a quarter of infants receives only breastmilk during this vital period.

Breastfeeding boosts infants' development and helps fight off allergies and infections.

It also lowers mothers' risk of breast and ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

"It's important for women to be aware of the benefits of breastfeeding for their babies' health and also their own personal health," Willeit said.

"Moreover, these findings from high-quality studies conducted around the world highlight the need to encourage and support breastfeeding, such as breastfeeding-friendly work environments, and breastfeeding education and programs for families before and after giving birth."

More than eight-in-ten (82 percent) study participants reported they had breastfed at some time.

There were no notable differences in cardiovascular disease risk among women of different ages or according to the number of pregnancies.

The US has the highest maternal death rate among developed countries with cardiovascular disease the leading cause.

The American Heart Association says two in three deaths during pregnancy may be preventable.

"The benefits of breastfeeding for infants and children are well established," said Proffesor Shelley Miyamoto, chair of its Council on Lifelong Congenital Heart Disease and Heart Health in the Young.

"Mothers should be further encouraged to breastfeed their infants knowing they are improving the health of their child and improving their own health as well.

"Raising awareness regarding the multi-faceted benefits of breastfeeding could be particularly helpful to those mothers who are debating breast vs. bottle feeding.

"It should be particularly empowering for a mother to know that by breastfeeding she is providing the optimal nutrition for her baby while simultaneously lowering her personal risk of heart disease."

Little information was available about women who breastfed for longer than two years.

"If we had this additional data, we would have been able to calculate better estimates for the association between lifetime durations of breastfeeding and development of cardiovascular disease in mothers," Tschiderer said.

Cardiovascular disease is the world's number one killer - claiming 17 million lives a year. It causes 160,000 deaths in the UK, annually.

The study was published in a special pregnancy spotlight issue of the Journal of the American Heart Association.

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