Breast-feeding may help ward off Alzheimer’s in mothers

By Lee Bowman

Some moms joke that nurturing their baby may lower their own IQ while raising the infant’s intelligence. But new research indicates breast-feeding may protect the mother’s brain from dementia later in life.

A British report out Aug. 5 suggests women who nurse have a lower risk for Alzheimer’s disease. It’s one of several recent studies showing new ways that breast-feeding may give long-term health advantages to women.

Dr. Molly Fox and her colleagues at the University of Cambridge speculated that the link between nursing and Alzheimer’s may have to do with specific biological effects from breast-feeding, such as quick restoration of insulin tolerance after pregnancy.

The study also showed that women who had a high ratio of months being pregnant versus months breast-feeding had a higher Alzheimer’s risk. The longer women nursed their babies, the more that risk was reduced.

The connection with breast-feeding was much less strong in women who already had a history of dementia in their family, indicating that genetic risks may outweigh the benefits from nursing.

The Cambridge study included a relatively small group of women — 81 — when they were between 70 and 100 years old. Some of the women had Alzheimer’s, some did not. Interviewing the women and their families, the researchers collected information about children, breast-feeding and other risk factors that might account for their dementia.

Previous research suggests women who breast-feed have a reduced risk for breast and ovarian cancers later in life, and perhaps a lower risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, particularly in women who experience gestational diabetes.

And studies have already shown there may be a link between breast-feeding and a woman’s general cognitive decline later in life. But the Cambridge study suggests some new ways of understanding what makes someone susceptible to Alzheimer’s relative to their reproductive history, Fox said.

Another British study, published Aug. 6 in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, found that women whose personalities are more extroverted and less anxious may be more likely to breast-feed than women who are introverted and more anxious.

The study by scientists at Swansea University involved 602 mothers with infants 6 to 12 months old. Women who indicated that they were extroverts and were emotionally stable were significantly more likely to initiate and continue breast-feeding longer. Mothers who were introverted or anxious were more likely to only use formula or breast-feed for only a short time.

The researchers suggest that introverted women may be more self-conscious about breast-feeding in front of others and those who were more anxious felt they could not get the support they needed.

Researchers are keenly interested in obstacles to breast-feeding, mainly due to the benefits for babies. Besides links to higher IQ and physical development, breast milk has antibodies that can help babies fend off infections of the ear, lung and gut and reduce risks for allergies and asthma, sudden infant death syndrome and perhaps other illnesses later in life.

The latest possible benefit: a study at the University of Illinois at Champaign found that of 47 children who began stuttering at an early age, those who were breast-fed as infants were as much as six times more likely to stop stuttering over time and return to fluent speech.

The August report in the Journal of Communication Disorders, notes that earlier research has shown ties between language development and breast-feeding, possibly because of fatty acids found in breast milk, but not formula, that boost brain function related to speech and language skills.

— Contact Scripps health and science writer Lee Bowman at [email protected] Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.

Scripps Howard News Service

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