Women over 50 who breastfed their babies performed better on cognitive tests compared to women who never breastfed a new study led by researchers at UCLA Health revealed. The findings, published in Evolution, Medicine and Public Health, suggest that breastfeeding has a possible positive impact on postmenopausal women’s cognitive performance and might have long-term benefits for the mother’s brain.
“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,” Molly Fox, Ph. D., lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Anthropology and the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, said in a release. “Our findings, which show superior cognitive performance among women over 50 who had breastfed, suggest that breastfeeding may be `neuroprotective’ later in life.”
Studies show when cognition becomes impaired after the age of 50, it can be a strong predictor of Alzheimer’s disease, the leading form of dementia and cause of disability among older people — with women comprising nearly two-thirds of Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease.
Other studies show that phases of a woman’s reproductive life history, such as menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause can be linked to higher or lower risk for developing various health conditions like depression or cancer. However, few studies have examined breastfeeding and its impact on long-term cognition. Of those studies, it was revealed that conflicting evidence shows whether breastfeeding might be linked to better cognitive performance or Alzheimer’s risk among post-menopausal women.
“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 (Alzheimer’s disease),” Helen Lavretsky, MD, the senior author of the study and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, said in a release.
In the research for the study, data was analyzed from women in two cross-sectional randomized controlled 12-week clinical trials at UCLA Health. The first was the Brain Connectivity and Response to Tai Chi in Geriatric Depression and Cognitive Decline. The other was the Reducing Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease in High-Risk Women through Yoga or Memory Training. Some of those in the study were non-depressed participants with some subjective memory complaints and a risk for heart disease.
“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,” Fox said.
In the two trials, 115 women chose to participate, with 64 identified as depressed and 51 non-depressed. All participants completed comprehensive psychological tests measuring learning, delayed recall, executive functioning and processing speed.
None of the participants were diagnosed with dementia or other psychiatric disorders, such as bipolar disorder, alcohol or drug dependence, neurological disorders or other disabilities, or taking psychoactive medications.
Results from the cognitive tests revealed those who had breastfed, regardless of whether they were depressed, performed better in all four of the tests measuring for learning, delayed recall, executive functioning and processing compared to women who had not breastfed.
“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,” Fox said in a release.