Feeding young children may decrease their risk of developing cognitive impairment later in life, according to a new study published online by Neurology.
Despite efforts to educate and encourage mothers to breastfeed, breast milk remains the healthiest form of nutrition to feed infants, and it also has the potential to protect against memory and learning, according to the National Institutes of Health. The new study might be the first to show such an association between breastfeeding and cognitive decline, according to experts at Northwestern Medicine.
The investigators studied more than 700,000 Danish women, starting when they were between the ages of 25 and 34, and followed them for about 20 years. About 20 percent of the women were breastfed while raising their children, and a total of 70,824 developed cognitive impairment by the time the study began. Over the course of the study, 75,310 of the women developed memory and learning impairment.
Researchers found that those who breastfed their children for more than 6 months were 14 percent less likely to develop cognitive impairment than those who did not. While the benefits of breastfeeding were still strong in nursing mothers, it did not lower the risk of cognitive impairment in non-breastfeeding mothers.
“Women who breastfeed are on the verge of decades of good health and quality of life,” said Dr. Suzy Hyslop, an associate professor of preventive medicine and neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Our study supports previous findings that show that lifelong benefits from breastfeeding continue into a woman’s senior years.”
The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Danish Research Council. Hyslop reported receiving non-voting consulting fees from Vitalia Svanborg, a senior researcher and Ph.D. candidate at Denmark’s Center for Women’s Health Sciences, where the study was conducted. She has not received financial support from pharma, private life-sciences firms or foundations related to their products or research.
“Anyone can breastfeed regardless of a woman’s age, body size or income,” Hyslop said. “Based on the results of our study, whether she chooses to breastfeed or not should not come into play for parents deciding whether or not to vaccinate or not to be obese. The benefits of breastfeeding on a woman’s health should outweigh other factors.”
The report highlights a concept called maternal breast milk as a risk factor for neurocognitive impairment. Because mothers in the study were older and more likely to be obese, it may be that their diets might also contribute to higher risk for cognitive impairment, the authors wrote.
“The results highlight the importance of emphasizing breastfeeding for both mothers and children,” said Dr. Shadi S. Chammas, an assistant professor of preventive medicine and neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “A mother’s long-term health is critically linked to the environment of her household, and the same goes for her health as a mother and child.”