An unexpected benefit of breastfeeding

Last Modified: 1/10/2019

Last week, the American Heart Association (AHA) released a study indicating that breastfeeding mothers might experience protection from stroke. According to the study, “Breastfeeding was associated with a lower risk of stroke in post-menopausal women who reported breastfeeding at least one child. And the association between breastfeeding and lower risk of stroke was stronger in women who breastfed for longer than six months and for black women.”

We asked Amber Hetrick, MD, PPG – Neurology, to walk us through these new findings.

What is the relationship between breastfeeding and instances of stroke?

There may be a relationship between breastfeeding and ischemic (non-bleeding type) stroke in postmenopausal women. There was an association that linked ever having breastfed a child (for more than one month) with a decreased incidence of stroke, with more months spent breastfeeding associated with an even lower incidence of stroke. However, it isn't understood if this association is a cause-and-effect relationship. It may be that breastfeeding is a marker of leading a healthier lifestyle, which lowers the risk of stroke, rather than being an act that decreases risk of stroke by itself.

Why do researchers believe the act of breastfeeding might reduce risk of stroke?

This study didn't address that question. However, other studies have suggested that breastfeeding may decrease long-term risk factors that are known to lead to stroke, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and metabolic syndrome.

What should mothers take away from this study?

There is a lot of evidence already that breastfeeding is beneficial to both mom and baby. This study suggests that there may be another benefit of breastfeeding.

What are some things women who choose not to breastfeed can do to reduce the risk of stroke?

It is important for every woman (and man, too) to look for ways to lower her risk for stroke.  This comes in the form of lowering and treating cardiovascular risk factors, namely smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. You should work with your doctor to look for these risk factors and do everything you can to manage them, as well as living a healthy lifestyle that includes eating a healthy diet and exercising.

Final thoughts?

There aren't many studies out there that address whether breastfeeding protects against risk of stroke. This is a good start to trying to answer that question, but more research needs to be done to determine whether there is a cause-and-effect relationship.

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