Breastfeeding may prevent cognitive decline in women in middle age

Middle-aged and older women who breastfed their children had a lower risk of developing cognitive impairment than women who had not breastfed, a new study says. The study, published this week in JAMA, analyzed…

Breastfeeding may prevent cognitive decline in women in middle age

Middle-aged and older women who breastfed their children had a lower risk of developing cognitive impairment than women who had not breastfed, a new study says.

The study, published this week in JAMA, analyzed data from more than 169,000 people who participated in the Nurses’ Health Study II. Women who had breastfed their children were 45 percent less likely to develop cognitive impairment, according to the study.

Breastfeeding was associated with both reduced risk of metabolic syndrome and developing Alzheimer’s disease, according to the study. Researchers also saw an association between breastfeeding and a decrease in the risk of cognitive impairment at middle age. The strongest associations were for people who had recently breastfed children.

It is unclear why breastfeeding might prevent cognitive impairment in middle-aged women, though researchers suggest that it may have something to do with the benefits associated with it.

“Increased exposure to chemicals in the environment and in the reproductive tract over time is implicated as a contributor to cognitive decline,” the study says. “Evidence from animal studies and from occupational exposure shows that prolonged exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals could have a negative impact on brain health. Longer exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals could also be associated with metabolic syndrome and neurodegenerative diseases.”

This is not the first study to find that breastfeeding could result in long-term brain health benefits. A review of published research in December by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that breastfeeding “offers many immediate health benefits for infants,” and that breastfeeding “also has long-term, health-associated effects on the infant and mother.”

To see whether breast-feeding had any effect on people of a certain age, the authors of the new study also analyzed data from Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense veterans. The people in the study were 25 to 60 years old, and many were experiencing a decline in cognitive function.

Mothers who were married or in a long-term relationship were more likely to breastfeed their children compared to women who were single. And the more time mothers spend apart from their children, the less likely they were to breastfeed.

Breastfeeding was also linked to women who did not finish a high school degree. It was associated with people who have previously had a cat and those who were overweight.

“Many people often dismiss the negative health effects of maternal alcohol consumption, sedentary behavior, diet, and exercise as the cause of cognitive decline,” the study says. “But evidence is accumulating that a wide range of adult behaviors contribute to cognitive decline.”

The study did not look at the effects of breast milk on boys.

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