Breastfeeding May Protect Against Cognitive Decline Later in Life

Breastfeeding has long been known to have benefits for babies, including stronger immune systems, fewer infections, better vision, and possibly even protection against type 1 diabetes. What about benefits for Mom, though? A new study says it may help keep her brain sharp later in life.

Researchers at UCLA compared cognitive test results on women over 50 who had breastfed and those who had not. They found that those who had breastfed performed much better. The findings can be read in the journal Evolution, Medicine and Public Health.

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Dr. Molly Fox, lead author and assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, says, “While many studies have found that breastfeeding improves a child’s long-term health and well-being, our study is one of very few that has looked at the long-term health effects for women who had breastfed their babies. Our findings, which show superior cognitive performance among women over 50 who had breastfed, suggest that breastfeeding may be ‘neuroprotective’ later in life.”

To conduct their research, the team analyzed data from women participating in two 12-week clinical trials, one of which included depressed women taking Tai Chi classes to help with depression and cognitive decline, with the other containing non-depressed patients taking yoga classes to help reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s.

Of the 115 women who chose to participate, 64 identified as depressed and the rest did not. None had been diagnosed with dementia or any psychiatric issues. The participants all submitted to psychological tests measuring learning, delayed recall, executive functioning, and processing speed. They also answered a questionnaire on their reproductive history, including about past breastfeeding.

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The researchers found that the women who had breastfed, whether they were depressed or not, performed better on all four cognitive tests than those who had not breastfed. In women who were not depressed, all four test scores were significantly associated with breastfeeding. For the depressed participants, only executive functioning and processing speed had a strong link to breastfeeding.

The team also found that the longer a woman had breastfed, the better the cognitive scores. Women who had not breastfed scored lower on three out of the four tests than women who had done so for 1-12 months and lower on all four tests than women who had breastfed for more than 12 months. Those who breastfed the longest had the highest scores overall.

Now, the team says more research needs to be done to understand this apparent link.

Dr. Fox explains, “Future studies will be needed to explore the relationship between women’s history of breastfeeding and cognitive performance in larger, more geographically diverse groups of women. It is important to better understand the health implications of breastfeeding for women, given that women today breastfeed less frequently and for shorter time periods than was practiced historically.”

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Research has found that breastfeeding may play a role in the risk of other diseases, too, including breast cancer.

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