Breastfeeding Shields Mom from Rheumatoid Arthritis

November 4, 2004 -- A mother who breastfeeds her child appears to receive a major unexpected health benefit from her experience. Breastfeeding provides her with long lasting protection against developing rheumatoid arthritis, according to a report by researchers led by Dr. Elizabeth Karlson at Harvard.

The Facts

Women who have breastfed for a total between 13 and 23 months, regardless of the number of children, had a 20% reduction in the risk of rheumatoid arthritis compared with women who did not breastfeed. Women who breast-fed for at least 24 months - two full years out of their childbearing years - increased their risk reduction to 50%.


Any woman who has rheumatoid arthritis in her family should consider this as an extra reason to breastfeed her baby. It seems extraordinary to us that breastfeeding is a mutually healthy experience, benefiting the health of both the baby and mom.


"Do Breast-Feeding and Other Reproductive Factors Influence Future Risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis? Results From the Nurses' Health Study," Elizabeth W. Karlson, Lisa A. Mandl, Susan E. Hankinson, and Francine Grodstein, Arthritis & Rheumatism, November 2004; 50:11; pp. 3458-3467 (DOI: 10.1002/art.20621).

Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.
Frederick Hecht, M.D.
Medical Editors,

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Rheumatoid Arthritis

Below is the original press release by Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Women's reproductive factors and the risk of rheumatoid arthritis

Study suggests prolonged preventive effect of breastfeeding and links irregular menstrual cycles to increased risk of disease

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an inflammatory disease of the immune system, is between two and four times more likely to strike women than men. Among women, RA is more likely to develop when reproductive hormonal levels are changing, such as in the first few months following a pregnancy and around the time of menopause. Although previous researchers have studied this topic, the relationship between hormones and the risk of developing RA remains unclear.

Seeking more conclusive evidence, a team of researchers led by Elizabeth Karlson, M.D. at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston drew on a large sample - 121,700 women - to explore the contribution of hormonal factors occurring prior to the onset of RA and the impact of postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy on the risk of disease. Their findings, published in the November 2004 issue of Arthritis & Rheumatism, strongly support the lasting benefits of breastfeeding in protecting against the disease. What's more, the researchers identified a new risk factor for RA: irregular menstrual cycles.

The study's subjects were all women enrolled in the Nurses' Health Study, a sweeping investigation of disease, health, and lifestyle, ongoing since 1976. Through extensive questionnaires, the research team documented each woman's reproductive history with attention to potential RA risk factors, including age at menarche, age at first birth, history of breastfeeding, use of oral contraceptives, and regularity of menstrual cycles and in older women studied the use of estrogen after menopause. Among these women, the researchers confirmed 674 RA patients, diagnosed anywhere between 1976 and 2002. Most of the women were middle-aged at disease onset; the mean age was 56 years.