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Benefits of breastfeeding

14 October 2005

A Wellcome Trust Training Fellowship in Clinical Epidemiology allowed Dr Richard Martin of the Department of Social Medicine to undertake a series of studies on breastfeeding.

There is increasing interest in the potential long-term effects of breastfeeding.  As part of my fellowship, a series of studies were undertaken to investigate the influence of breastfeeding on a person's growth, levels of heart disease risk factors, and risk of developing or dying from heart disease in later life. 

These studies suggest that breastfeeding could have a number of potential health benefits in later life.  Breastfeeding was associated with being taller in childhood and adulthood, and may be part of the explanation for previous findings suggesting taller people have less heart disease. 

There was a small reduction in blood pressure levels in childhood in those who were breastfed versus those who were formula (bottle) fed which may have implications for future heart disease and stroke risk.

Breastfeeding may protect against future heart disease risk

Breastfeeding was also associated with lower levels of obesity, and fewer people who had been breastfed as infants had evidence of thickening or plaques in their arteries (abnormalities that may lead to heart disease or stroke).

The findings also suggest that breastfeeding may protect against future heart disease risk by altering levels of certain growth hormones in the blood or by improving blood sugar control. 

Breastfeeding should be considered a potential component of public health strategies to reduce population levels of heart disease.  Understanding how breastfeeding influences future heart disease risk may identify other potential preventative interventions that could be started early in life.

The findings from the research have been published as eight peer-reviewed scientific papers, including publications in Circulation, Archives of Disease in Childhood, Pediatrics, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and the European Heart Journal.

Dr Richard Martin/Department of Social Medicine

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