Breastfeeding: Preventing Cognitive Decline For Women

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Breastfeeding is known to have numerous benefits on a child’s long-term health and well-being. It’s the best source of nutrition and antibodies for babies, it gives babies greater immunity against infection, and in the long-term, it will help protect them against certain short- and long-term illnesses and diseases. On the other hand, breastfeeding is also found to benefit mothers, but little is known about its long-term health effects.

A study published in Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health is one of the few studies that investigated the long-term health effects of breastfeeding for women who had breastfed their babies. The study suggests that breastfeeding may positively impact postmenopausal women’s cognitive performance and could have long-term benefits for the mother’s brain. The researchers also asserted that breastfeeding’s biological and psychosocial effects, such as improved stress regulation, could exert long-term benefits on the mother’s brain.

The researchers also hypothesized that breastfeeding might be linked to long-term superior cognitive performance for mothers because it has been discovered to help manage stress, foster infant connection, and reduce the risk of postpartum depression, all of which suggest acute neurocognitive advantages for the mother.

Investigating Breastfeeding Benefits on Preventing Cognitive Decline

Cognitive health is critical for well-being in aging adults. Yet, when cognition becomes impaired after age 50, it can be a strong indicator of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), the leading type of dementia and cause of disability among the elderly, which affects nearly two-thirds of American women.

Several studies also demonstrated that a higher or lower risk for developing various health conditions like depression or breast cancer might be related to the phases of a woman’s reproductive life history, including menstruation, gestation, breastfeeding, and menopause, yet there are very few known facts about the long-term benefits of breastfeeding for women’s cognition. 

Also, breastfeeding norms have dramatically changed in the modern day, with women choosing to breastfeed less frequently, for a shorter duration, and sometimes not at all. Hence, women today may not receive the maternal health advantages breastfeeding has.

The researchers concentrated on the association between maternal breastfeeding history and cognitive performance in women over 50 to close the knowledge gap in understanding the long-term advantages of breastfeeding in preventing cognitive decline and potentially encouraging women to choose to breastfeed.

To confirm their claim, the researchers analyzed data from 115 women recruited from two cross-sectional randomized 12-week clinical trials at UCLA Health:

  1. The “Brain Connectivity and Response to Tai Chi in Geriatric Depression and Cognitive Decline,” with depressed participants. 
  2.  The “Reducing Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease in High-Risk Women through Yoga or Memory Training” with non-depressed participants with some subjective memory complaints and risk for heart disease.

The study’s participants aged 50 years above completed a comprehensive battery of psychological tests measuring learning, delayed recall, executive functioning, and processing speed.  

The participants also answered questions assessing their reproductive life history, including the age they began having their period, the number of pregnancies they’ve had, their breastfeeding duration for each child, and their menopausal age.

Importantly, participants were assured of having no dementia or other psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder, alcohol or drug dependence, neurological disorders, or other disabilities preventing their participation.

The Findings of The Study

Based on the analysis of the data collected from questionnaires on the women’s reproductive history, the researchers found the following findings:

  • 65 percent of non-depressed women reported having breastfed, compared to 44 percent of depressed women.
  • Compared to 57.8% of the depressed participants, every non-depressed respondent stated they had at least one completed pregnancy.  
  • Women who had breastfed outperformed women who had not breastfed in all four cognitive tasks measuring learning, delayed recall, executive functioning, and processing, regardless of whether they were depressed.
  • All four cognitive domain scores were significantly associated with breastfeeding in the women who were not depressed.
  • The longer time spent on breastfeeding was associated with better cognitive performance.
  • Women who had breastfeed the longest had the highest cognitive test scores.

The findings suggest that women who breastfed demonstrate superior cognitive performance after age 50 in certain domains compared to women who never breastfed.

To further improve the crucial finding of the study, the researchers suggest that further studies are needed to explore the relationship between women’s breastfeeding history and cognitive performance in larger sample sizes, other comorbid contexts, and populations that reflect geographic, ethnic, and cultural diversity. 

Journal Reference

Fox, M., Siddarth, P., Oughli, H. A., Nguyen, S. A., Milillo, M. M., Aguilar, Y., Ercoli, L., & Lavretsky, H. (2021). Women who breastfeed exhibit cognitive benefits after age 50. Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, 9(1), 322–331. https://doi.org/10.1093/emph/eoab027 

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