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New study tallies high cost of suboptimal breastfeeding rates on maternal health and our nation’s health care burden

In a study published today in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, five researchers led by Melissa C. Bartick, M.D., M.Sc., of Cambridge Health Alliance and Harvard Medical School estimate that current breastfeeding rates result in substantial costs for women and our economy.

Supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the study, “Cost Analysis of Maternal Disease Associated With Suboptimal Breastfeeding,” compared the outcomes expected if 90 percent of mothers were able to breastfeed for at least one year with outcomes under the current one-year breastfeeding rate of 23 percent. The study focused on five maternal health conditions associated with a shorter duration of breastfeeding – breast cancer, ovarian cancer, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and myocardial infarctions.

In dollar terms, the cost of low breastfeeding rates is significant. The study estimates that as a result of less-than-recommended breastfeeding rates, the United States annually incurs $17.4 billion in economic costs (much of it attributable to the high value placed on life lost before the age of 70 years), $734 million in direct medical costs and $126 million in indirect costs.

In addition to the monetary considerations, Bartick’s research demonstrates a critical point for our nation’s health as well. Low breastfeeding rates, the study finds, may cause as many as 5,000 cases of breast cancer, nearly 54,000 cases of hypertension and almost 14,000 heart attacks each year.

“This research is important in linking the health risks mothers face due to suboptimal breastfeeding and confirms the need to further increase rates,” said Dr. Gail Christopher, vice president for program strategy at the Kellogg Foundation.

At the Kellogg Foundation’s First Food Forum earlier this year, co-author Eleanor Bimla Schwarz, M.D., M.S., of the University of Pittsburgh put the importance of breastfeeding into context: “If you could bundle up the effects of a year of lactation into a magic pill, it would be a blockbuster selling drug because one in every 33 mothers treated would be saved from a lifetime of hypertension.”

Given the magnitude of the potential savings in costs and benefits to women’s health, the researchers call for a definitive study on whether breastfeeding plays a causal role in determining maternal health.

“Support from all sectors of society is important to help women breastfeed much longer than they do now,” says Dr. Bartick. “They want to breastfeed longer. We need to support their goals. Their health and lives depend on it.”

The study will be available soon through the Center for Research on HealthCare and from Obstetrics & Gynecology.

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