While there is extensive research documenting the benefits of breastfeeding for babies, a new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association indicates that the practice may lessen a mother’s risk of heart disease and stroke. Moreover, researchers found that a mother’s risk of cardiovascular disease further decreased with each additional 6 months of breastfeeding. Previous studies have suggested that women who breastfeed may experience short-term reductions in blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight loss, which likely benefit cardiovascular health.

The study, conducted in China, analyzed data from 289,754 Chinese women who were free of cardiovascular disease at the study’s baseline; almost all participants had children. The study required the women to provide information surrounding reproductive history, including whether or not they had breastfed children and the duration of breastfeeding.

The researchers assessed the incidence of heart disease and stroke among the women over an eight year follow-up, ultimately finding that women who had breastfed children were at a 9% lower risk of heart disease and an 8% lower risk of stroke, compared to those who had not breastfed. When looking at the results by breastfeeding duration, results revealed that women who had breastfed children for 2 years or longer were 18 percent less likely to develop heart disease and 17% less likely to have a stroke. For every 6 additional months of breastfeeding, risks of heart disease and stroke were respectively reduced by 4% and 3%.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States; statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that approximately 610,000 people die from heart disease each year, accounting for 1 in every 4 deaths. Likewise, stroke is one of the country’s leading causes of disability: there are more than 795,000 people in the U.S. who have a stroke annually.

Senior author Zhengming Chen of the University of Oxford states that “the findings should encourage more widespread breast-feeding for the benefit of the mother as well as the child.”

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