Breastfeeding for an extended period of time is linked to a reduced risk of developing multiple sclerosis, as is the later onset of a woman’s menstrual cycle, shows a new study.
Researchers from the American Academy of Neurology analyzed a subset of nearly 750 women to see if they could isolate distinct links to multiple sclerosis, an inflammatory disorder that affects the central nervous system.
They studied 397 women who recently had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis or a precursor to the disease known as clinically isolated syndrome. For comparison, they looked at 433 women of similar age and race who were without the disorder.
After tracking the women’s history of pregnancy-related outcomes, hormone variations and breastfeeding habits, they discovered a strong link between long-term breastfeeding and a reduction in the chances of developing multiple sclerosis.
Specifically, they found that women who breastfed for 15 months or more (cumulatively, with one or more children) had a 53 percent reduced risk of developing the chronic condition compared to women who breastfed for four months or less in total.
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“This is another example of a benefit to the mother from breastfeeding,” said study author Dr. Annette Langer-Gould with Kaiser Permanente Southern California in Pasadena and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.
The women who breastfed for 15 or more months also saw a reduced risk of other diseases and conditions, noted the study.
“Other health benefits include a reduced risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart attack,” said Langer-Gould.
Late-Onset Period Also Implicated
The researchers found another important association related to a woman’s first menstruation during the study. Women who experienced their first menstrual cycle at age 15 or older had a lower chance – of 44 percent – of developing multiple sclerosis later in life than women whose first period came before the age of 12.
The study found no association between other birth-related factors, such as a woman’s number of pregnancies, the use of hormonal contraceptive or age of first pregnancy, and multiple sclerosis.
Because previous studies have shown that women with multiple sclerosis experience a reduction in symptoms while they are pregnant or breastfeeding, the researchers speculated that ovulation and breastfeeding may play a critical role.
“Many experts have suggested that the levels of sex hormones are responsible for these findings, but we hypothesized that the lack of ovulation may play a role, so we wanted to see if having a longer time of breastfeeding or fewer total years when a woman is ovulating could be associated with the risk of MS,” Langer-Gould said.
The study authors caution that the results don’t prove that breastfeeding is the cause for a reduced risk of multiple sclerosis, only that an association between the two exists. However, the evidence is compelling and may encourage medical professionals to highlight the potential benefits of breastfeeding.
“This study provides more evidence that women who are able to breastfeed their infants should be supported in doing so,” Langer-Gould said. “Among the many other benefits to the mother and the baby, breastfeeding may reduce the mother’s future risk of developing MS.”
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.