For the first time, researchers examined the link between breastfeeding and stroke in women, including a breakdown by ethnicity. The findings were published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
“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,” lead author Dr. Lisette T. Jacobson, an assistant professor in the department of preventive medicine and public health at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita, said in a press release.
The researchers noted the benefits of breastfeeding for the child as well as women.
“Some studies have reported that breastfeeding may reduce the rates of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and risk of developing Type 2 diabetes in mothers,” Jacobson said. “Recent findings point to the benefits of breastfeeding on heart disease and other specific cardiovascular risk factors.”
With stroke as the fourth leading cause of death among women aged 65 and older, the researchers zeroed in on the relationship between breastfeeding and heart health.
They derived data from 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.
In the analysis, women had delivered one or more children and 58 percent reported ever having breastfed. At the time of recruitment, the average age was 63.7 years and the follow-up period was 12.6 years.
Among the participants, 3.4 percent of the women experienced a stroke during the study period and 1.6 percent reported having had a stroke before the study. The survey had excluded women who had already had severe strokes at the time of recruitment.
After adjusting for stroke risk factors such as age and family history, researchers broke down the data by demographics.
Overall, risk was 23 percent lower in all women — but in black women risk was 48 percent lower, and it was 32 percent lower in Hispanic women. For white women, risk was 21 percent lower, and 19 percent lower for who breastfed for up to six months. As breastfeeding increases, the researchers report, it was associated with a lower stroke risk.
“Our study did not address whether racial/ethnic differences in breastfeeding contribute to disparities in stroke risk,” Jacobson said. “Additional research should consider the degree to which breastfeeding might alter racial/ethnic differences in stroke risk.”
The study did not establish a cause-and-effect relationship between breastfeeding and reduced stroke risk, the researchers say.
By Allen Cone