FRIDAY, March 5 (HealthDay News) -- The benefits of breastfeeding for infants are numerous and well-known, but researchers are finding more and more that breastfeeding can be a boon to mom's health as well.
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In fact, the latest study on the subject suggests that women who breastfeed have reduced amounts of abdominal fat, even decades later.
The study, which was scheduled to be presented Friday at an American Heart Association conference on cardiovascular health in San Francisco, found that middle-age women who consistently breastfed their children had waist circumferences that were an average of 2.6 inches smaller than women who had never breastfed.
"Belly fat is the least healthy place for women to store fat, and breastfeeding really seems to be targeting this bad fat," said study author Candace McClure, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Pittsburgh.
Breastfeeding confers a host of benefits to infants, including a decreased risk of ear infections, asthma, stomach problems, respiratory illnesses, skin allergies, diabetes and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In mothers, research has shown that breastfeeding might lower a woman's risk for type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, ovarian cancer and postpartum depression.
Recent research has found that women who breastfed their children had less risk for heart disease and the factors known to contribute to it, such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Many experts have suspected that it's not just the extra calorie expenditure of breastfeeding that's helpful, but that breastfeeding helps women lose abdominal fat faster. Excess abdominal fat is a risk factor for heart disease.
To see what lasting effects breastfeeding might have on abdominal size, McClure and her colleagues reviewed data on 351 women who had participated in the Study of Women's Health Across the Nation Heart Study, conducted from 2001 to 2003.
At the start of the study, the women averaged 51 years old and had an average of two children, the last having been born an average of 19 years earlier. The group included 43% blacks and 57% whites, and 84% of them had a high school education or more.
When divided into groups, 29% of the women had never breastfed, 29% breastfed inconsistently (less than three months for each child) and 42% consistently breastfed (all children for at least three months each), according to McClure.
Women who were premenopausal or in early perimenopause and had never breastfed were found to have 28% more belly fat than women who had breastfed all of their children. The women who had not breastfed had a waist circumference that measured an average of 2.6 inches more than that of women who consistently breastfed, and their waist-to-hip ratio was 4.7% higher. Waist-to-hip ratio is also used to assess cardiovascular risk: The higher the result, the greater the risk for heart disease.
Women who hadn't breastfed also did not fare well when compared with women who had never given birth. Premenopausal and early perimenopausal women who hadn't breastfed had 42% more belly fat than women who'd never given birth.
However, the researchers didn't find any statistically significant differences in belly fat in women who were in late perimenopause and menopause.
"It's interesting that these researchers are starting to associate breastfeeding with a physiologic mechanism that may protect against heart disease, but the question remains: Was it a benefit of breastfeeding, or did these women have a healthier lifestyle throughout their lives?" said Dr. Nieca Goldberg, director of the Women's Heart Program at the New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City.
The bottom line from the study, she noted, is that "women who breastfeed are doing something good for their children -- and maybe also for themselves."
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SOURCES: Candace McClure, Ph.D., postdoctoral scholar, University of Pittsburgh; Nieca Goldberg, M.D., director, Women's Heart Program, New York University Langone Medical Center, associate professor, cardiology, New York University School of Medicine, New York City; March 5, 2010, presentation, American Heart Association's Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention Annual Conference, San Francisco