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Breastfeeding: Does it Really Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease?

Breastfeeding: Does it Really Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease?

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.

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Image credit: Thinkstock.

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33 comments

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9:36PM PDT on Aug 17, 2013

@Anne M ~ There are millions of seniors afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease in nursing homes all over the world-that's a very sad truth. I've worked with Alzheimer's patients (and others who are afflicted with other neurodegenerative disorders). I think that you've misunderstood what this article is saying. It's not about whether or not they themselves were breastfed--it's about if they breastfed their children.

Many did not breastfeed since bottle feeding became more widespread and popular during the 50's. (Bottle feeding has been around longer than that, but its "wave" (return to popularity & widespread use) was high again at that time.) (Which is about the time most of our current elders were having their children.)

The study is FAR from being conclusive. At this point it's just something to consider and to be aware of. And, since there is a high probability that many of us may be afflicted with the disease or we'll have family and friends who are, it's worth considering all preventative options--no matter matter how "out there" they may be.

I hope I helped to clarify this for you. God bless!

3:17PM PDT on Aug 12, 2013

For goodness sake-------what next??????????????????????
get real

8:38AM PDT on Aug 11, 2013

Interesting theory, but, a very small study.

2:13AM PDT on Aug 9, 2013

I agree with Anne's comment. But I guess anything is "good enough" to study if there's money to spend ...

Would I have had children I would have breastfed them but this study is IMO a big hoopla about nothing.

Dave's comment made me chuckle ... LOL!

8:51PM PDT on Aug 8, 2013

Interesting theory but nothing conclusive.

7:02PM PDT on Aug 8, 2013

Thanks for this article. Alzheimer is a very big challenge but the toxic lifestyles and the amount of pressure most people endure probably lead to changes which leave the CNS vulnerable and prone to severely decompensate once we approach old age.

5:38PM PDT on Aug 8, 2013

noted thanks

3:47PM PDT on Aug 8, 2013

Who knew???

1:44PM PDT on Aug 8, 2013

Interesting

1:13PM PDT on Aug 8, 2013

noted.

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