Chalk up another health benefit tied to breastfeeding — for new moms. A new British study has found that women who breastfeed their children have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and the longer they do so, the lower their overall risk.
The findings, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, suggests that the benefits are tied to certain biological effects of breastfeeding, such as restoring insulin tolerance which is significantly reduced during pregnancy. The researchers noted Alzheimer's is partly linked to insulin resistance in the brain.
Lead researcher Molly Fox, M.D., from the Department of Biological Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, said the results suggest a new way to combat Alzheimer's — especially in areas where cheap, preventative measures are desperately needed. They may also help increase scientists’ understanding of what makes some people more susceptible to Alzheimer's in the first place.
"Alzheimer's is the world's most common cognitive disorder and it already affects 35.6 million people," noted Dr. Fox. "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."
For the study, Dr. Fox and colleagues surveyed 81 British women — aged 70 and 100, with and without Alzheimer’s — as well as their relatives, spouses, and caregivers. They reviewed the women’s breastfeeding and reproductive histories, dementia status, and other health information.
Despite the small number of participants, Dr. Fox said the findings revealed a number of clear links between breastfeeding and a lower risk of Alzheimer's. The association was less strong among women who had a parent or sibling with dementia.
The researchers suggested breastfeeding deprives the body of the hormone progesterone, which increases during pregnancy and may play a role in Alzheimer's. Another possibility is that breastfeeding increases a woman's glucose tolerance by restoring her insulin sensitivity after pregnancy.
"Women who spent more time pregnant without a compensatory phase of breastfeeding therefore may have more impaired glucose tolerance, which is consistent with our observation that those women have an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease," Dr. Fox added.
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