Breastfeeding Linked to Reduced Stroke Risk in New Study

It's well established that breastfeeding can help mothers bond with their babies, but new research suggests that it could also reduce the risk of stroke later in life.

A new study from the American Heart Association (AHA) shows that breastfeeding decreases the risk of stroke, the third-leading cause of death for women in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"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," said Lisette Jacobson, lead author of the study and assistant professor in the department of preventive medicine and public health at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita.

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Women nurse their children, during a public event to promote the benefits of breastfeeding, during the World Breastfeeding Week at a park in Bogota on August 3, 2018. A new study from the American Heart Association (AHA) suggests that the longer a woman breastfeeds, the less of a chance she will suffer from a stroke. RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images

Risk factors for stroke include diabetes, high blood pressure, and smoking, according to the American Stroke Association.

During the study, researchers from the University of Kansas analyzed data from 80,191 women from The Women's Health Initiative Observational Study, which looked at the medical outcomes for women over an approximately six-year period in the 1990s. Many of these women are now post-menopausal.

The women were asked to report if they had ever breastfed their children and the duration that they spent nursing. About 51 percent of the women who did breastfeed, reported that they nursed for one to six months, 22 percent for seven to 12 months, and 27 percent for 13 months or more. In 2010, after adjusting for other factors that could influence the women's health, like exercise or smoking, researchers could draw a correlation between breastfeeding and the decreased chance that someone might experience a stroke.

Researchers found stroke risk among women who breastfed their babies was on average 23 percent lower in all women. In black women breastfeeding made an even bigger difference, with a 48 percent reduction in stroke risk.

"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," Jacobson said.

Since the study was observational, it couldn't establish a cause-and-effect relationship between breastfeeding and lower stroke risk, which means that it is possible some other characteristic that distinguishes between women who breastfeed and those who don't is the factor changing the stroke risk. Still, the correlation between breastfeeding and stroke risk reduction remains strong, Jacobson said.

"Breastfeeding is only one of many factors that could potentially protect against stroke. Others include getting adequate exercise, choosing healthy foods, not smoking and seeking treatment if needed to keep your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar in the normal range," Jacobson said.