February is Heart Awareness Month. Although heart disease is sometimes thought of as a "man's disease", it is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Every year about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack, an estimated 610,000 people die of heart disease every year, that's about 1 in every 4 deaths. In 2010, African-Americans were 30% more likely to die from heart disease, as compared to non-Hispanic Whites. Disparities in income and education levels are associated with differences in the occurrence of illness and death, including heart disease.
- High blood pressure and High LDL cholesterol
- Smoking, poor diet and excessive alcohol use
- Overweight and physical inactivity
- Diabetes and obesity
The benefits of breastfeeding have been well documented and many women now know that it helps prevent both diabetes and obesity. However, women may not know that new data suggests breastfeeding also cuts a woman's risk of heart disease long after her infant has grown up. Pregnancy increases a woman's risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. But breastfeeding cancels out this risk. The longer women nursed babies, the less likely they were to develop diabetes, heart disease, or stroke. If they breastfed for more than six months during their lifetime, they were less likely to have a heart attack or stroke. Women who breastfed for seven to 12 months reduced other risks, too, including high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol - regardless of race, income, education and other socioeconomic factors.
A study at the University of Pittsburgh by Dr. Eleanor Schwarz, MD found for every 125 women who accumulate 12 months of breastfeeding, one case of heart disease would be prevented. Her study also showed that years after weaning their children, women who breastfeed for at least three months not only have fewer risk of chronic disease but also smaller waist circumference. A smaller waist may be a clue to how breastfeeding reduces a woman's risk to heart disease and stroke. Belly fat accumulation is probably another adverse effect of pregnancy that has the most important long-term health consequences for women. But this belly fat may be preferentially reduced by breastfeeding.
The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that women breastfeed for the sake of their children's health. Schwarz says it may be time to recommend breastfeeding for the women's own health.