Breastfeeding is nature’s way of nourishing a baby, and the practice has been shown to help both mother and child. A new study suggests that breastfeeding may positively affect the mother’s health years later.
A large study in China revealed that women who had breastfed were about half as likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis later in life as women who had not breastfed their babies.
The authors of this study wrote that more research is needed to explore the role hormones play in the onset of rheumatoid arthritis.
Professor Peymane Adab, of the Department of Public Health, Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Birmingham in Birmingham, UK, and colleagues used data from the Guangzhou Biobank Cohort Study, which involved 7,349 women aged 50 and older.
The goal of this study was to evaluate the association between rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and breastfeeding and to see if the use of oral contraceptives (birth control) impacted development of RA.
RA is an inflammatory disease that can lead to the destruction of joints. According to the researchers, previous studies looking at the association between RA and breastfeeding have produced mixed results, while oral contraceptive use has been suggested to be protective against RA.
For this study, participants had completed questionnaires that detailed their lifestyle, pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding histories, along with their use of oral contraceptives. The women were asked if they’d ever been diagnosed with RA, and a nurse examined their joints for swelling, stiffness or tenderness.
Nearly all (95 percent) of the women in the study had breastfed, and only 11 percent had used oral contraceptives, mostly for a short period of time. The average age of pregnancy among the participants was 24, and the average age of RA diagnosis was 47.5 years.
Adab’s team learned that women who had ever breastfed had a roughly 50 percent lower likelihood of developing RA as women who had never breastfed. These risks decreased even further the longer the woman had engaged in breastfeeding.
There was no association between oral contraceptive use and RA.
“Breastfeeding (especially longer duration) but not [oral contraceptive] use is associated with a lower risk of RA. This has potentially important implications for future RA disease burden, given the declining rates of breastfeeding and the one-child policy in China. Further research is needed to explain the biological mechanism,” the authors concluded.
This study was published January 7 in the journal Rheumatology.
Funding for this research came from the University of Hong Kong Foundation for Educational Development and Research; Guangzhou Public Health Bureau and Guangzhou Science and Technology Bureau; and the University of Birmingham.
No conflicts of interest were disclosed.