Breastfeeding may help prevent cognitive decline later in life

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Mothers who breastfed their babies may be in a better position to stave off cognitive decline in old age, according to researchers from UCLA. Their study finds women over 50 years-old who breastfed after pregnancy performed better on a series of cognitive assessments in comparison to women who did not breastfeed their children.

Study authors theorize that these observations suggest breastfeeding has some type of positive impact on post-menopausal brain health in women.

“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,” says lead study author Molly Fox, PhD, an Assistant Professor in the UCLA Department of Anthropology and the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, in a university release. “Our findings, which show superior cognitive performance among women over 50 who had breastfed, suggest that breastfeeding may be ‘neuroprotective’ later in life.”

Does breastfeeding relieve stress on the brain?

Everyone experiences a certain degree of cognitive slowing with age. It may take a bit longer to remember where you left your keys or what you ate for dinner two nights ago. Extensive cognitive decline, however, can be a precursor to much more serious conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s. Notably, women make up two-thirds of Americans currently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Regarding breastfeeding and health, plenty of prior research indicates that a woman’s reproductive life-history (including menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause) has a connection to both higher and lower risk profiles for various diseases including breast cancer and depression. When it comes to breastfeeding and long-term cognition outcomes, though, there is little reliable research to reference.

“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,” notes senior study author Helen Lavretsky, MD, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA.

“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,” Dr. Fox adds.

Breastfeeding may also lead to better mental health

To better understand this topic, study authors analyzed datasets originally collected for two cross-sectional randomized controlled 12-week clinical trials focusing on cognition held at UCLA Health. The first involved depressed individuals while the second included subjects at risk of heart disease complaining of subjective memory issues.

Of the 115 women in these combined datasets, doctors diagnosed 64 with depression. Each woman completed a series of tests measuring learning, delayed recall, executive functioning, and processing speed. Additionally, female subjects answered a survey on their personal reproductive life-history that asked about topics such as the age they began menstruating, their number of complete and incomplete pregnancies, the length of time they breastfed for each of their children, and their age of menopause.

None of the women received a formal diagnosis for any form of dementia or psychiatric issue like bi-polar disorder, neurological disorders, or substance abuse issues. There were also no significant differences between depressed and non-depressed women in regards to age, race, or education.

Among non-depressed women, 65 percent reported having breastfed. In comparison, 44 percent of the depressed women had breastfed. All of the women without depression reported at least one successful pregnancy, but only 57.8 percent of depressed females had the same success.

Importantly, regardless of depression-status, women who had breastfed performed better across all four cognitive test categories measuring learning, delayed recall, executive functioning, and processing.

Breastfeeding longer is better for the brain?

Another, separate analysis of the data also showed that all four cognitive domain scores displayed a significant link with breastfeeding among non-depressed women. For depressed women, though, breastfeeding only correlated with two of the cognitive categories (executive functioning and processing speed).

Moreover, more time spent breastfeeding even showed a connection with better cognitive performances. When study authors added up all the time an individual woman spent breastfeeding over the course of her life, they discovered that women who had not breastfed at all had significantly lower cognitive scores across three out of the four domains in comparison to women who had breastfed for a period of roughly one to 12 months.

Women who didn’t breastfeed at all had lower scores in all four categories compared to the women who had breastfed for more than 12 months. All in all, study authors report the women who scored the highest on the cognitive tests had also breastfed their babies the longest.

“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,” Dr. Fox concludes.

The study appear in the journal Evolution Medicine and Public Health.