"Even though all we can do is theorize about how all of this makes sense, theories are pretty acceptable, that is to say that eating patterns established as an infant do carry over into adolescence, young adulthood and middle age," said Dr. Clyde Yancy, professor of medicine and cardiology at the University of Texas Southwestern and associate dean of clinical affairs at UT Southwestern University hospitals. "As well, obesity as an infant and as a child is the most difficult obesity to overcome, and there's a clear link between being bottle fed and eventually becoming obese."
Many doctors at the heart meeting said they believed this study was especially significant because it traced the effects of breast-feeding all the way into adulthood. Although health experts have known for years the immediate health benefits of breast-feeding for the baby, this is the first study to explore the long-term impact.
"Everything we … look at now seems to show us that there are periods in your early life when external factors have a continued effect on how we mature and the way the brain … develops. But here we have compelling evidence that this period [of breast-feeding] continues to affect us into adulthood," explained Morrow.
The primary difference between human breast milk and baby formula is the nutritional content. Human milk produced by a healthy mother contains a vital balance of fatty acids, amino acids, lactose and vitamins — all of which play a vital role in a child's growth, brain development, digestion and even metabolic rate. Baby formula is manufactured from cow's milk, which contains more fat that is harder for humans to digest.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers breast-feed for six to 12 months.
"Beyond the metabolic benefits of breast-feeding, we know that the period of breast-feeding is a time of rapid brain growth. It's a time when people's preferences for tastes as well as people's ability to feel satisfied with food are determined," said Jim Stein, associate professor of medicine in the division of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Wisconsin.
Parikh said she hopes that this study will inspire further research in this area, as researchers were unable to prove exactly what mechanisms are responsible for the reduced cardiovascular risk they observed in breast-fed babies.
"I think it would be interesting to do similar study where you actually have breast milk samples and measure the levels of cholesterol and nutritional content," Parikh said. "I hope our work will serve as impetus to pass baton onto researchers who would explore this in the future."