Cognitive protection of women 50+ linked to breastfeeding, study shows

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A recent study shows babies’ brains may not be the only ones that benefit from breastfeeding.

Researchers at UCLA Health have found that women who breastfed their babies performed better on cognitive tests than women who did not. The results indicate that breastfeeding could positively affect postmenopausal women’s cognitive performance. It also indicates possible long-term benefits for their brain.

The findings were published in the journal Evolution, Medicine, & Public Health.

“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,” lead author Molly Fox, Ph.D., said in a press release. “Our findings, which show superior cognitive performance among women over 50 who had breastfed, suggest that breastfeeding may be ‘neuroprotective’ later in life.”

Cognitive health is the ability to clearly think, learn and remember. When it becomes impaired after 50, it can be a major predictor of Alzheimer’s disease. Nearly two-thirds of Americans living with Alzheimer’s are women.

Few studies have reviewed how breastfeeding impacts women’s long-term cognition. Ones that have evaluated this have shown conflicting evidence as to whether breastfeeding may be tied to improved 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,” senior study author Dr. Helen Lavretsky said. She is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior 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,” added Fox, who is an Assistant Professor in the UCLA Department of Anthropology and the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences.

Researchers analyzed data gathered from women participating in two cross-sectional trails at UCLA Health. Each of the trials were 12 weeks and were randomized and controlled. The two trials had 115 participants with 64 identified as depressed and 51 non-depressed. All completed a comprehensive series of psychological tests measuring learning, delayed recall, executive functioning and processing speed. Additionally, they answered a questionnaire about their reproductive history. It included questions about the age they began menstruating, number of pregnancies — completed and incomplete — and the duration that they breastfed each of their children. It also asked the age they reached menopause.

None of the participants had been diagnosed with dementia or other psychiatric diagnoses.

Findings showed that around 65% of non-depressed women reported breastfeeding compared to 44% of depressed women. All non-depressed participants reported at least one completed pregnancy while 57.8% of depressed participants reported the same. Cognitive test results showed participants who breastfed performed better in all four tests measuring for learning, delayed recall, executive functioning and processing compared to women who didn’t breastfeed.

A separate analysis of data for both groups showed that all four cognitive domain scores were significantly associated with breastfeeding in non-depressed participants. Depressed participants, meanwhile, only had two cognitive domains associated with breastfeeding. Researchers also found that more time spent breastfeeding was linked to improved cognitive performance. Women who didn’t breastfeed were found to have significantly lowered cognitive scores in three of four domains compared to women who did so for 1-12 months. The longer women breastfed, the higher their cognitive test scores.

“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.

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