Breastfeeding May Lower Risk for Heart Disease, Metabolic Syndrome

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Breast-feeding can significantly lower a woman's risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a dangerous cluster of heart disease and diabetes risk factors, reports a new study appearing online in the journal Diabetes from the American Diabetes Association.

Researchers recruited almost 1400 women ages 18 to 30 in a multi-center study named CARDIA (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults) in 1985 to assess what factors increased the risk of coronary artery disease. None of the women had children, and none met the criteria for metabolic syndrome. The women were studied at intervals of 7, 10, 15, and 20 years.

During the study, just over 700 women had babies, with 120 of them going on to develop metabolic syndrome. Of those women who developed the condition, average duration of breast feeding was 2.6 months. The women who did not develop metabolic syndrome nursed an average of 7 months. Breastfeeding, in the absence of gestational diabetes, decreased the risk of developing metabolic syndrome by 56%.

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Having gestational diabetes increases the risk of later development of metabolic syndrome. For the 84 women with the pregnancy-related diabetes, breast feeding for nine months lowered the risk by 86%. Even a short period of nursing benefitted new moms with gestational diabetes. Breastfeeding for one to five months lowered risk by 44%.

Metabolic syndrome is a group of risk factors that include abdominal obesity, low HDL cholesterol, high LDL cholesterol, high triglycerides, insulin resistance, elevated markers of inflammation and a tendency for blood to clot, according to the American Heart Association. It affects about 18 to 37% of women between the ages of 20 and 59. People with metabolic syndrome are significantly more likely to develop heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

"Breast-feeding has favorable health benefits for women as well as for children. Breast-feeding may help protect women from heart disease and diabetes in the future," said the study's lead author, Erica Gunderson, an epidemiologist and research scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, Calif.

For women, breast-feeding appears to reduce the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, and postpartum depression, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The authors suspect that women who breastfeed also are benefiting from higher HDL cholesterol levels, less accumulation of belly fat, and improvement to blood sugar metabolism.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations recommend exclusive breastfeeding for infants in the first six months of life, and continuing as nutritional support until the child’s first birthday.

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