Breastfeeding might reduce women's risk of Alzheimer's disease, suggests study

Figures suggest the longer a woman spends breastfeeding, the lower the overall risk becomes

Health Reporter

Mothers who breastfeed may have a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease in later life, according to the results of a pilot study that marks a new frontier for research into the most common form of dementia.

Certain biological effects of breastfeeding, such as its action in restoring women’s glucose tolerance after pregnancy and rebalancing the levels of important hormones in the body, may well play a part in protecting the brain against the onset of the disease, scientists from Cambridge University said.

Although the researchers urged caution, pointing out that their study was only a pilot and looked at just 81 women, the link they observed between breastfeeding and reduced Alzheimer’s risk was “highly significant and consistent”. The longer a woman spent breastfeeding, the lower the overall risk became, their figures suggested.

Breastfeeding has been associated with numerous health benefits for mother and child, and previous research has shown there may be a link to women’s cognitive health in later life.

Scientists behind the study said the findings could herald a new approach in fighting the global Alzheimer’s epidemic, and could have a major impact in developing countries where cheap preventative measures were urgently needed.

“Alzheimer’s is the world’s most common cognitive disorder and it already affects 35.6 million people,” said Dr Molly Fox, who led the study. “In the future, we expect it to spread most in low and middle-income countries. So it is vital that we develop low-cost, large-scale strategies to protect people against this devastating disease.”

Dr Fox and her colleagues suggested that the link may be down to breastfeeding’s action in restoring insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance, which is significantly reduced during pregnancy. Alzheimer’s is characterised by a resistance to insulin in the brain – and therefore glucose intolerance.  

Breastfeeding also reduces levels of the hormone progesterone, which build ups up during pregnancy. Progesterone is to desensitise the proteins in the brain that react to oestrogen – another hormone which scientists believe may play a role in protecting the brain against Alzheimer’s.

The researchers interviewed 81 British women aged between 70 and 100, in a sample which included women with and without Alzheimer’s. The team also spoke to relatives, spouses and carers. Through the interviews, information was collected on the women’s reproductive history and breastfeeding history. Scientists took into account lifestyle factors and diseases that can contribute to Alzheimer’s risk.

The impact of breastfeeding on reducing Alzheimer’s risk was, however, almost non-existent in women who had a parent or sibling with the disease.

Dr Fox told The Independent that a similar study, conducted with a large sample of several thousand women in China, had found the opposite effect – that shorter times spent breastfeeding reduced dementia risks. Genetic and environmental factors might account for the differing results between the two studies, she said.

“That really highlights the fact there might be a relationship between breastfeeding physiology and cognitive health,” she said. “More research should investigate that relationship. What’s really important is to discern what is the physiological effect of breastfeeding that is having this impact decades down the road.”

A spokesman for the Alzheimer’s Society said: “This study is novel, and it’s interesting to note that it found a consistent link between this feeding technique and Alzheimer’s disease. However, it was a small study which doesn’t explore why the two are associated. It is too premature to make recommendations for mothers regarding breast feeding and their risk of dementia.”

Breast is best: The benefits

The NHS strongly recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a baby’s life, and combining breastfeeding with other food afterwards, for as long as mother and baby wish.

For babies, it reduces the risk of diarrhoea, infections, diabetes and eczema and there is increasing evidence it also aids cognitive and emotional development. For mothers, it can lower the risk of ovarian and breast cancers, and can help build a strong bond with a new-born baby.

Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

    £16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

    £9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

    Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

    £15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn