Breastfeeding and Improved Cardiovascular Health: A Link
Do infants who were breastfed have better cardiovascular health later in life than those who were fed formula? A study in Pediatrics by Graduate School of Public Health Professor C. Mary Schooling and colleagues at the University of Hong Kong sought to find out.
The researchers used data from a cohort in Hong Kong called the Children of 1997. They obtained birth and health records for 3,261 individuals in this 1997-born group, including information on whether they were breastfed, formula-fed, or fed a mix of breast milk and formula as infants. They also got readings for their cholesterol levels and body-mass index at around age 17 1/2.
The findings showed that exclusive breastfeeding compared with formula feeding was associated with lower total cholesterol and lower levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL-C, the so-called “bad cholesterol”) in the teenagers. Interestingly, BMI and bodyfat percentage did not differ by type of infant feeding.
The study noted that breast milk is higher in cholesterol than formula, and that breastfed infants have higher blood cholesterol than formula-fed babies. But it’s possible that being breastfed somehow “programs” the body to better regulate cholesterol in adulthood. Exactly how this might work is “poorly understood” and bears further research.
The authors also said that infants who were exclusively breastfed were introduced to solid food later than infants who got formula, so that could be a factor in the cholesterol difference observed in the teenagers.
In the U.S., breastfeeding is often associated with higher socioeconomic status, but in Hong Kong in the 1990s, that was not the case. As such, the Hong Kong Children of 1997 birth cohort provided an opportunity to “unravel the effects of breastfeeding on health,” because differences among them would not be attributable to family income, education, or social class.
The bottom line, according to the study: Giving infants nothing but breast milk “may promote a healthier lipid profile in late adolescence” with “potential long-term benefits for cardiovascular health.”