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Researchers concluded that low breast-feeding rates may be linked to as many as 5,000 cases of breast cancer, nearly 54,000 cases of high blood pressure and almost 14,000 heart attacks among American women each year.
But some experts question the study's methodology and maintain that more research is needed before drawing conclusions about lags in breast-feeding and women's health.
The researchers, who used a simulated model to arrive at their conclusions, said the costs of premature death caused by illnesses related to low breast-feeding rates are $17.4 billion a year. The study, published online June 6 in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, defines premature death as death before age 70, or more than 10 years before the average U.S. woman is expected to die.
Only about 25 percent of U.S. women follow medical recommendations to breast-feed each child for at least one year, the researchers said. This low rate also is associated with $734 million more in direct medical costs for women and $126 million more in indirect costs each year, they said.
"Thousands of women are suffering needless disease and premature death because they are not able to breast-feed their infants as long as they may want to," said study lead author Dr. Melissa Bartick, an assistant professor of internal medicine at Harvard Medical School and an internist at Cambridge Health Alliance, in Massachusetts. "Support from all sectors of society is important to help women breast-feed much longer than they do now."
Other experts said the findings should be viewed with caution.
"Although there is general agreement that breast-feeding provides benefits to both the mother and child, assuming that it will decrease cost by using a simulated model is risky," said Dr. Stephanie Bernik, chief of surgical oncology at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
"For example, although breast-feeding may reduce the risk of heart disease, perhaps it is not the actual breast-feeding, but rather the mother's demeanor that reduces her risks," Bernik said. If a woman has the time and patience to breast-feed for one year, this may reflect a less stressful life, which could be the actual reason she is less likely to suffer a heart attack later in life, she said.
"The findings of this study are provocative, but more research needs to be done to clearly delineate why breast-feeding may be good for overall health," Bernik said.
Dr. Frank Monteleone, director of the breast health program at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y., also pointed out shortcomings in the study. The link between breast cancer and breast-feeding is still fuzzy, he said.
"More clinical and scientific studies need to be performed before we can establish a clear link between breast cancer and breast-feeding," Monteleone said. "This study is based on estimated and expected results rather than actual results of a study looking at the effects of breast-feeding on breast cancer rates."
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 60 percent of American women do not breast-feed as long as they intend to.
Policies are needed to enable women to meet their own breast-feeding goals and also meet medical breast-feeding recommendations, Bartick said in a Cambridge Health Alliance news release. For example, she said, mothers who deliver in "baby-friendly hospitals" are more likely to get the early breast-feeding support they need.
"They want to breast-feed longer," she said. "We need to support their goals."
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCE: Stephanie Bernik, M.D., chief, surgical oncology, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Frank Monteleone, M.D., director, breast health program, Winthrop-University Hospital, Mineola, N.Y.; Cambridge Health Alliance, news release, June 6, 2013