Could breastfeeding be healthy for mothers?

Many health benefits have been shown for women who breastfeed their baby, and now, a new study out of China says breastfeeding might lead to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke for the mother.

"Heart Disease is the number one killer of women, and yet, 80% of heart disease is preventable," said Dr. Martha Gulati, the Chief of Cardiology for Banner UMC in Phoenix. "We're always looking for what could be the risk factors that we can attack early."

According to a new study out of China that was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, it is suggested that the long term benefits of breastfeeding for women include a reduced risk of heart attack and stroke.

"It doesn't prove causality, meaning it doesn't prove that breastfeeding reduced heart attack or stroke," said Dr. Gulati. "What it did suggest is that maybe there is some relationship to -- and again, we don't know the answers of why. We don't know that breastfeeding reduces inflammation, because we think heart disease actually is inflammation. We don't know if it's just reflecting healthy behaviors. We know in the United States, women who breastfeed tend to do other healthy things as well."

The observational study looked at about 300,000 women in China, and it showed that among women who've had children, a history of breastfeeding was associated with a 10% lower risk of several major cardiovascular diseases later in life. Among those women who breastfed, each additional six months of breastfeeding was associated with a further 3% to 4% lower risk.

"There's a lot of variables that they couldn't collect or couldn't report to us about, and I think what it showed though is that those people that did breastfeed had lower risks of heart disease and stroke, and that's good to know, but we probably need more studies on that. The longer you breastfed as well, they showed that the longer you breast fed you had even lower risk of a heart attack and stroke," said Gulati.

Gulati said while the study didn't show a direct link, many factors could play a part.

"Maybe it is because the metabolism increases, and we certainly know when you breastfeed, you tend to achieve your pre-pregnancy weight more likely than someone who doesn't breastfeed, and we definitely know that you increase your metabolism with breastfeeding. That could be part of it," said Gulati. "There could be inflammatory markers that are different in a woman who breastfeeds versus someone who doesn't, and we think heart disease, when you get down to the bare bones of it, is due to inflammation, and maybe there's some inflammatory response that quiets down in women who breastfeed."

While there is a lot of research about the positive effects of breastfeeding, Dr. Gulati said more research needs to be done to see the direct link between breastfeeding and a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke. Dr. Gulati said many women don't get to reap the full benefits, because they have to stop breastfeeding too soon, especially working moms.