Breastfeeding May Come With Another Bonus: Lowering the Risk of Stroke

Aug 23, 2018 at 5:00 p.m. ET
Woman breastfeeding baby on floral background
Image: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images, Jaime Monfort/Getty Images. Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows.

It's no secret that breastfeeding has many benefits for both the child and the person doing the nursing. In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, breastfeeding can help protect infants from numerous diseases and conditions, including ear infections, respiratory infections, urinary tract infections, diabetes and childhood obesity.

But breastfeeding doesn't just have a positive effect on the child. From postpartum weight loss to a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancer, mothers also reap the benefits of breastfeeding. That said, according to a new study out of the Journal of the American Heart Association, breastfeeding may offer an additional perk: It may lower a mother's risk of having a stroke.

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The study, conducted by the American Heart Association, analyzed data from 80,191 participants and found that those who breastfed for one to six months had their risk of a stroke decrease by 19 percent, and those who breastfed 13 months or more lowered their risk by 26 percent.

The risk was further reduced for Hispanic and Black women (at 32 percent and 48 percent, respectively).

According to Dr. Lisette T. Jacobson, lead author of the study and assistant professor in the department of preventive medicine and public health at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita, while "some studies have reported that breastfeeding may reduce the rates of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and risk of developing Type 2 diabetes in mothers," this study is one of the first to highlight "the benefits of breastfeeding on heart disease and other specific cardiovascular risk factors," she said in a statement.

And this is huge, especially since strokes are the fourth-leading cause of death in the U.S. for women aged 65 and older, and the third-leading cause of death among Hispanic and Black women.

That said, the correlation between breastfeeding and a lowered stroke risk remains something of a mystery. What's more: because the study was observational, the American Heart Association was unable to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between two. 

However, Dr. Sherry Ross, an OB-GYN at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells SheKnows that while "it was not clear what the biological mechanism was that actually accounted for a lower risk of stroke in women who breastfed for long periods of time... it is well known that women who breastfeed have a reduced risk of high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes," and these two things can lower one's risk of heart disease and stroke.

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So, what should a new mom do? Well, according to Jacobson, “if you are pregnant... [you should] consider breastfeeding as part of your birthing plan and continue to breastfeed for at least six months to receive the optimal benefits, for you and your infant." Of course, this isn't an option for all parents, but a nice perk for those who are able to incorporate it into their child's first months.

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