The amazing finding comes from data collected 13 to 16 years ago in a study of premature babies. The original study was trying to learn the best way to feed preterm infants. Some of the kids were breastfed --for about four weeks -- while others were formula fed.
Now those kids are teenagers. Blood tests of 216 of these near-adults show that those who were breastfed have lower cholesterol than those were fed formula. They also have lower CRP blood levels, a marker of inflammation associated with heart disease.
"Our findings suggest that breast milk feeding has a major beneficial effect on long-term cardiovascular health," write Atul Singhal, MD, of the U.K. MRC Childhood Nutrition Research Center, London, and colleagues. Their report appears in the May 15 issue of The Lancet.
The researchers say a 10% reduction in cholesterol levels -- like that seen in the teens that were breastfed as infants -- would be expected to cut their risk of heart disease by 25%. That's a lot. Adults who go on a low-fat diet lower their cholesterol by 3% to 6%.
It's not yet clear that these findings -- from premature babies -- apply to full-term kids as they grow up. But Singhal and colleagues say available evidence suggests that the findings do indeed apply to all children. Moreover, they predict that the benefits of early breastfeeding will increase as the teens grow into adulthood. To test this prediction, they'll keep track of them as they mature.
Too Much Early Nutrition Bad?
Could speedy infant growth -- spurred by nutrition-rich formula feeding -- increase a person's chances of heart disease and diabetes in adulthood? That's what Singhal and colleague Alan Lucas, MD, suggest in a Lancet editorial.
Their theory is that breastfeeding gives an infant the nutrition it needs -- but no more. Nutrition-rich formula, Singhal and Lucas suggest, makes children grow too much, too fast.
"Breastfed infants show slower growth than those fed formula (especially in the early weeks when breastfeeding is not fully established)," they write. "[Breastfed infants] subsequently have lower risk of cardiovascular disease, [high cholesterol], obesity, non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, and high blood pressure."
If this theory is correct, change may be needed to current recommendations for childhood nutrition. But Singhal and Lucas warn that there are risks from too little nutrition, too. More study is needed before any changes should be made -- although breastfeeding looks better and better as more data come in.
"Our findings strongly support the promotion of breastfeeding, which reduces the risk of early over-nutrition and overgrowth, particularly in the early weeks," they conclude.