To breast-feed or not to breast-feed? That question has plagued new moms for decades. But the findings of a new study that were presented at the American Heart Association conference Monday might help make this decision a little easier.
Observational data collected from the Framingham heart study suggests breast-fed babies have fewer cardiovascular risks as they mature into adults. By analyzing the data collected from two generations of participants in the study, investigators found that the breast-fed babies were more likely to have a lower body mass index (BMI) and higher level of HDL cholesterol — often referred to as "the good cholesterol" — when they reached adulthood. A low level of excess body fat and a high level of HDL are both associated with reduced risk for cardiovascular disease.
"Breast milk contains certain things that might be protective later on in life and might actually program an infant's metabolism at a very early stage," said Dr. Nisha Parikh, lead investigator of the study and cardiovascular fellow at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "That programming will lead to either a baby with higher or lower weight later on in life. And that's the idea that we've only just scratched the surface of — that you're early exposure to nutrition might affect your metabolism in the long term."
Investigators analyzed the data from 393 mothers enrolled in the study and 962 of their offspring, 26 percent of whom were breast-fed. The average age of the offspring was 41. Researchers found that the breast-fed offspring were 55 percent more likely to have high HDL cholesterol in adulthood. The average BMI of the breast-fed babies was also lower: 26.1 kilograms per meters squared, compared to 26.9kg/m2 for the bottle-fed infants.
Dr. Robert Morrow, professor of pediatrics and chief of the cardiology section at Arkansas Children's Hospital, emphasized the importance of taking into account socioeconomic differences when studying the impact of breast-feeding. When the Framingham study began in 1947, breast-feeding was considered "low class" and was done primarily by women who couldn't afford baby formula, Morrow explained.
Because many of the breast-feeding mothers were from lower socioeconomic status, their diets were often less nutritious than those of wealthier women. Their babies often did not get proper nutrition because the breast milk of women with less nutritious diets was likely to have high levels of cholesterol and fat.
These socioeconomic differences were accounted for by researchers via questionnaire. The results were altered based on what the mothers said about their social status and eating habits.
Parikh stressed that because the study was observational, no definitive clinical recommendations could be drawn from these findings, nor any absolute proof that breast-feeding directly contributes to the decrease in cardiovascular risk factors. However, a great amount of research over the last 20 years has added to the knowledge on the health benefits of breast-feeding.