A Hidden Benefit of Breast Feeding

A Hidden Benefit of Breast Feeding

Breast feeding may help protect you from a painful, sometimes even crippling, condition later in life. Okay, I don’t think this benefit will be the deciding factor for starting or continuing breastfeeding for many women, but Swedish researchers uncovered an interesting association that underlines the power of breast feeding.

We already know that breast feeding has numerous benefits for babies and for their mothers (including lowering the lifetime risk of cancer for both of them). In this study the researchers found that breast feeding was associated with slashing the risk of rheumatoid arthritis. They looked at over 18,000 women to identify those with rheumatoid arthritis and four healthy matched controls for each patient. The longer they breast fed, the lower the risk. Breast feeding for longer than a year was associated with cutting the risk in half; breast feeding for 1 to 12 months was associated with dropping the risk by a quarter. Cause and effect have not been proven, but we do know that rheumatoid arthritis is much more common in women, and it appears that hormones play a role.

In this study, no association was found either way with childbearing itself or with oral contraceptive pills, but the association of breast feeding and health was strong. Rheumatoid arthritis rates have been falling in recent years, and shifting to later in life when it does occur. In Sweden, breast feeding rates have been rising steadily since the beginning of the 1970s, from fewer than 5 percent of women breast feeding for longer than 6 months to about 73 percent doing so today. We’ve seen things moving in the same directions in the US. Whatever the reasons, this is good news.

Pikwer M, Bergström U, Nilsson J-Å, Jacobsson L, Berglund G, and Turesson C. Breast-feeding, but not oral contraceptives, is associated with a reduced risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Ann Rheum Dis. published online 13 May 2008; doi:10.1136/ard.2007.084707

Dr. Alan Greene

Dr. Greene is the founder of DrGreene.com (cited by the AMA as “the pioneer physician Web site”), a practicing pediatrician, father of four, & author of Raising Baby Green & Feeding Baby Green. He appears frequently in the media including such venues as the The New York Times, the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, & the Dr. Oz Show.

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