PHILADELPHIA, Have you ever looked at breast milk stored in a refrigerator and thought it resembled a stick of butter? That question inspired a research study, which found that breastfeeding could reduce the risk of maternal breast cancer and heart disease, along with saving more than $17 billion in societal medical costs before the age of 70.
“If you’ve looked at breast milk in the refrigerator, it bears a striking resemblance to a stick of butter,” said Dr. Eleanor Bimla Schwarz, an associate professor of medicine, epidemiology, and obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive services at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “I started to wonder, does losing all of this butter – for a woman – matter? Does it affect her health over the long term?
Dr. Schwarz was one of the architects of a study conducted by the Harvard Medical School and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, which explored the effects of infant feeding practices on five maternal health conditions: breast cancer, heart attacks, hypertension, premenopausal ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes. The study’s findings indicated that if 90 percent of mothers were able to breastfeed as recommended, for one year after birth, U.S. women might be spared over 53,000 cases of hypertension, roughly 14,000 heart attacks and nearly 5,000 cases of breast cancer.
Furthermore, lactation “resets” maternal physiology, helping a woman recover from birth. If a woman doesn’t breastfeed, she is less likely to lose that “stick of butter” and have higher risks of heart disease and obesity.
“This is not a small number of women,” said Dr. Schwarz, sharing the findings with attendees at the 18th Annual International Meeting of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, held in Philadelphia on Nov. 21 – Nov. 24, 2013. “Breastfeeding has really important effects on a mother’s health. If we’re not talking about that, we’re missing part of the story.”
This research was supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Dr. Schwarz also presented at the First Food Forum in Atlanta, Ga. in 2013.