Women who breastfed their babies have better cognitive health than those who never breastfed, according to recent research.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of California has found that breastfeeding can have a positive effect on the cognitive functioning of women over 50 and can provide lasting advantages for their brain.

The lead author of the study, Dr Molly Fox, Assistant Professor in the UCLA Department of Anthropology and the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, said: “While many studies have found that breastfeeding improves a child’s long-term health and well-being, our study is one of very few that has looked at the long-term health effects for women who had breastfed their babies. Our findings, which show superior cognitive performance among women over 50 who had breastfed, suggest that breastfeeding may be ‘neuroprotective’ later in life.”

Cognitive health in older adults is vital for their wellbeing. After the age of 50, diminishing cognition can suggest the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most prominent form of dementia for older people. Almost two thirds of Americans with the disease are women.

Previous studies indicate that stages of a women’s reproductive history, such as pregnancy and menopause, can be linked to both greater and lesser risk of health conditions, such as breast cancer and depression.

There is limited research into the correlation between breastfeeding and cognition health. Current data differs as to whether breastfeeding can relate to greater cognitive functioning or the risk of Alzheimer’s disease for women after their menopause.

Senior author Dr Helen Lavretsky, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, explained: “What we do know is that there is a positive correlation between breastfeeding and a lower risk of other diseases such as type-2 diabetes and heart disease, and that these conditions are strongly connected to a higher risk for AD.”

Dr Fox added: “Because breastfeeding has also been found to help regulate stress, promote infant bonding and lower the risk of post-partum depression, which suggest acute neurocognitive benefits for the mother, we suspected that it could also be associated with long-term superior cognitive performance for the mother as well.”

The research looked at data obtained from 115 female participants taking part in two 12-week clinical trials, 64 of whom had depression. They completed a series of psychological tests and completed a survey regarding their reproductive life history, including information surrounding menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause.

Notably, not one of the participants had a dementia or any psychiatric diagnosis, a neurological diagnosis, a disability which affected participation, or were on psychoactive medication. No vital differences in the women’s age, race, education, or cognitive measures were present between participants who were depressed and those who were not.

The data found that around 65 per cent of the women who were not depressed had breastfed, whereas only 44 per cent of women who were depressed had breastfed. The findings also showed that those who had breastfed a child achieved a greater score on all of the cognitive tests when compared to women that never breastfed.

Researchers concluded that all of the four cognitive domain scores were largely linked to breastfeeding for non-depressed women.

The research also found that the women who breastfed for the longest period of time performed better cognitively. Women who had never breastfed had a considerably lower score in three of the cognitive domains compared to women who had breastfed for one to 12 months, and a considerably lower score in all four cognitive domains when compared to women who had breastfed for over a year.

The highest cognitive scores were achieved by the women who had breastfed for the longest period of time.

Dr Fox said: “Future studies will be needed to explore the relationship between women’s history of breastfeeding and cognitive performance in larger, more geographically diverse groups of women. It is important to better understand the health implications of breastfeeding for women, given that women today breastfeed less frequently and for shorter time periods than was practiced historically.”

The study has been published in Evolution, Medicine and Public Health.

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