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
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
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

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine