Could breastfeeding an infant for at least six months have an added benefit for Mom? Could it actually reduce heart disease? That’s what researchers at the University of Pittsburgh tried to figure out. They enrolled 678 women in Michigan who were pregnant between 1998 and 2004. They then followed up about 11 years later and measure the women’s blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides. They also measure the diameter and thickness of the carotid artery using a test that predicts heart disease risk. The women who breastfed for six months or more had higher levels of HDL (aka the good cholesterol), lower triglycerides as well as a healthier carotid artery thickness versus the women who had never breastfed.
Why might that be?
The truth is we really don’t know, says Dr. Vivek Goswami, a cardiologist at Austin Heart and Heart Hospital of Austin. More research needs to be done and this study was a poster presentation at the American College of Cardiology’s 67th Annual Scientific Session earlier this month, rather than being something that had been peer reviewed and accepted into a medical journal.
Goswami likens it to the way some researchers have found that breastfeeding leads to more intelligent children. Is it the breastfeeding? Or is it that the moms who breastfeed tend to be healthier, have better nutrition, exercise more, have more access to education, are in a different socioeconomic group than moms who don’t? That we don’t know.
What we do know is that women die of heart disease more than any other disease.
Goswami says rather than worry about this study and whether or not it’s the breastfeeding that is lowering the risk or something else, women should know the risk factors for heart disease:
- Family history of heart disease.
- High blood pressure.
- High cholesterol.
- High alcohol use.
- Unhealthy eating.
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea.
- Erectile Disfunction (clearly men only).
- Abnormal carotid artery thickness.
They also should know that about 80 percent of heart disease is preventable through exercising at least 30 minutes a day with aerobic exercise, eating healthfully and avoiding the risk factors you know you can avoid such as smoking and alcohol, he says.
Goswami would like women (and men, too) to do some preventative testings much like they might do a colonoscopy or a mammogram. He recommends the Heart Saver CT, which looks at the carotid artery. Sometimes insurance pays for it, but if not, it’s about a $99 test and it gives you a score that tells you how well you are doing compared with another person in your age range. Goswami says often people think that just checking your blood pressure or cholesterol is enough of a way to predict future heart disease, but he says about 75 percent of the people who have a heart attack have had a normal cholesterol range.
Women ages 45-70; men ages 40-65 with one or more risk factor can make an appointment for one at Heart Hospital of Austin, or if you are outside those age ranges and don’t have a risk factor, you can still get one, but you need a written referral from your doctor.
All the CTs get read by a cardiologist and sent to the patient’s doctor as follow up. https://austinheart.com/service/heartsaver-ct
Pregnancy can tell us a lot about future heart disease, though. Sometimes blood pressure or blood sugars will be elevated, which could be a foreshadowing or early warning sign that you are predisposed to have heart disease or diabetes later in life, Goswami says.
It’s also a time where there is more blood volume your heart is pumping, which could put you at risk for a blood clot or a coronary artery dissection or other heart-related problems.