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Breastfeeding Linked to Better Health for Mothers, Study Finds

National Partnership for Women & Families
April 23, 2009

Women who have breastfed have a lower risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases during menopause, according to a study scheduled to be published in the May issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology, the New York Times reports. According to the Times, previous research has suggested that breastfeeding might reduce the risk of osteoporosis, breast and ovarian cancers, and type 2 diabetes.

The study -- led by Eleanor Bimla Schwarz, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh -- examined data on 139,681 women enrolled in the Women's Health Initiative and found a link between the duration of breastfeeding and health benefits during post-menopausal years. The researchers found that women who breastfed for more than one year throughout their lifetime were nearly 10% less likely to have a heart attack or stroke during their postmenopausal years compared with women who had never breastfed. In addition, women who breastfed were less likely to have diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol. Even women who had breastfed for only one month had lower rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, according to the study. In addition, women who reported breastfeeding for more than one year were 20% less likely to have diabetes, 12% less likely to have hypertension, 19% less likely to have high cholesterol, and 9% less likely to have a heart attack or stroke.

Schwarz said, "We've known for a long time that [breast-feeding is] important for the baby's health, but we now know it's important for mothers' health as well." Some experts warned that although the study demonstrates a correlation between breastfeeding and health benefits, it could show that women who breastfeed lead healthier lives than those who do not, the Times reports. Nieca Goldberg, medical director of the New York University's Women's Heart Center, said women who breastfeed "may be healthier women who take better care of themselves." According to Goldberg, the hormone oxytocin, which is crucial to milk production, could play a role because it is known to relax blood vessels and might make them more resistant to plaque build-up. In addition, women who breast-feed burn more calories by producing milk, helping them eliminate fat accumulated during pregnancy (Rabin, New York Times, 4/22).

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