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-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
Pediatricians have for some time strongly recommended breastfeeding as a practice that fosters infants’ health in numerous ways. A study recently completed at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology now gives cardiologists good reason to likewise recommend the practice as a long-term safeguard for mothers’ hearts. This new Norwegian study, in fact, finds that women who have breastfed children for at least 24 months face significantly lower risk of heart disease before the age of 50 than do women who have never breastfed a child. At a time when divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing have multiplied the number of single mothers, it should be noted that this new study predictably finds that it is disproportionately married mothers who enjoy these cardiac benefits.
To assess the association between breastfeeding and maternal cardiovascular health, the Norwegian scholars parsed data collected between 1995 and 1997 from 21,368 mothers involved in a cross-sectional population-based study. These data establish a clear and enduring linkage, among women age 50 and younger, between breastfeeding and mothers’ cardiovascular health. The strength of the linkage is quite strong: the researchers calculate that, compared to women who breastfed for at least 24 months, women under the age of 50 who had never breastfed were nearly twice as likely to suffer from high blood pressure (Odds Ratio of 1.88), more than three times as likely to be obese (Odds Ratio of 3.37), and almost six times as likely to have developed diabetes (Odds Ratio of 5.87).
Not surprisingly, unmarried and divorced Norwegian mothers were much more likely than their married peers to be exposed to these adverse cardiac risks. Slightly over one-fifth (21.4 percent) of the total sample of women surveyed for the study had breastfed for 24 months or longer; however, only about one-tenth (11.1 percent) of the unmarried and divorced women in the study had such a breastfeeding history.
The significance of these findings is obvious to the researchers, who point out that “cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death in women in the western world” and that the “major modifiable risk factors” for such disease include high blood pressure, obesity, and Type-2 diabetes. The researchers find it particularly striking that “the favourable effects of lactation [i.e., breastfeeding] on maternal metabolic health persist post weaning,” fostering long-term cardiovascular health through “effects lasting even beyond the childbearing years.” “If the observed associations are causal,” the researchers conclude, “[breastfeeding] could have substantial potential for reducing women’s risk of cardiovascular disease.”
Of course, the data for this study indicate that it is married women—in Trondheim or Topeka—who are most likely to realize the reduction of heart disease that comes with breastfeeding.
(Siv T. Natland et al., “Lactation and Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Mothers in a Population-Based Study: The HUNT-Study,” International Breastfeeding Journal 7 : 8.)