A new study has shown that women who breastfeed may cut their likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease by as much as two-thirds. Why is this and what does it mean for women who don’t wish to or cannot breastfeed?
The study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and headed by Dr. Molly Fox from the department of biological anthropology at the University of Cambridge, was only a small pilot study of just 81 women aged between 70 and 100. However, previous research has shown that breastfeeding also correlates with a reduced risk of developing other health problems, and may even slightly reduce cancer risk and circulatory disease.
While noting a need for caution about these findings, and saying that future wider studies will be needed and are already in the works, the Cambridge researchers noted a “highly significant and consistent” pattern that women who breastfed were much less likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
It is not breastfeeding itself that is thought to prevent Alzheimer’s, the researchers note, but rather the biological processes that happen alongside breastfeeding that may reduce a woman’s risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
The theory is that breastfeeding may reduce the amount of progesterone in the body, helping to reset progesterone levels that are usually very high during pregnancy. It has been established that progesterone can, when in high concentrations, desensitize the brain’s estrogen receptors. Previous research has suggested that estrogen may protect the brain against the development of Alzheimer’s.
Another theory suggests that breastfeeding restores insulin sensitivity, which is disrupted during pregnancy. Alzheimer’s is of course characterized by a level of insulin resistance in the brain. The researchers do not have any conclusive evidence either way, but they suggest that these factors combined with other biological changes may be triggered by breastfeeding and provide a certain level of protection from developing Alzheimer’s for the mother.
“Alzheimer’s is the world’s most common cognitive disorder and it already affects 35.6 million people,” Dr Molly Fox, who led the study, is quoted as saying. “In the future, we expect it to spread most in low and middle-income countries. So it is vital that we develop low-cost, large-scale strategies to protect people against this devastating disease.”
“Women who spent more time pregnant without a compensatory phase of breastfeeding therefore may have more impaired glucose tolerance,” Dr Fox goes on, “which is consistent with our observation that those women have an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.”
Interestingly, the researchers found that the connection between breastfeeding and reduced Alzheimer’s risk, while still present in some cases, was much less pronounced in women who had a history of dementia in their family.
Also, Dr. Fox revealed to The Independent that a similar study with a large sample of several thousand women in China found the opposite: that women who breastfed for a shorter period of time were less likely develop dementia. This, Dr. Fox says, may be down to the environmental and lifestyle differences.
Regardless, the findings open up a new avenue of research for those looking to find ways of preventing Alzheimer’s, and specifically helps scientists further illuminate risk factors for Alzheimer’s and why some people are more susceptible than others. The health benefits of breastfeeding rather than bottle feeding are, for both mother and child, regularly touted and this is being seen as yet another reason to favor breastfeeding over the bottle.
The UK’s National Health Service already strongly recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a baby’s life, pointing to studies that show breastfeeding can reduce the risk of infections, diabetes and eczema in children, and lower the risk of ovarian and breast cancers in mothers. It should be noted that some of these benefits are disputed though, and that the “breast is best” motto has been referred to as dogma rather than hard scientific fact.
For our purposes, it is enough to ask what of the women who cannot breastfeed or those who, for a variety of reasons, choose not to? Does that doom them to Alzheimer’s?
The answer, of course, is no.
There are many lifestyle decisions that are thought to correlate with reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia that you can take action on.
Among them are ensuring good oral hygiene, exercising regularly, having a balanced organic vegetable-rich diet, consistent mental stimulation, ensuring quality sleep, giving up smoking and excessive consumption of alcohol, and reducing stress so as to ensure a healthy immune system and good mental health.
Image credit: Thinkstock.
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