Moms who breastfed may be protected against cognitive decline later in life.
Data suggests that breastfeeding a child may protect a woman against cognitive decline later in life.
Specifically, a 2021 study from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) assessed the cognitive performance of women over the age of 50 to see if a history of breastfeeding could influence their mental sharpness. The findings, published in the journal Evolution, Medicine and Public Health, revealed that the women who had breastfed a child performed better on cognitive tests than the women who had never nursed a baby. These observations suggest that breastfeeding during a woman’s reproductive years may have long-term benefits on cognitive function.
The term “cognition” refers to the brain’s ability to think, pay attention, understand, learn, remember, and reason.
In this study, 115 women completed a battery of tests measuring learning, delayed recall, executive functioning, word association, and processing speed. They performed such tasks as memorizing words on a list; organizing numbered items; performing tasks quickly; and looking at cards with words written on them and naming the color of the ink (not the color spelled out by the word). The women also answered about their reproductive health history. Women who were not depressed and women with depression were both included in the study.
Of the women without depression, those who breastfed performed significantly better in the domains of learning, delayed recall, executive functioning, and processing speed as compared to the non-depressed women who had never breastfed a child.
Of the women with depression, those with a history of breastfeeding a child scored higher in the realms of executive functioning and processing speed.
The data also showed a correlation between how long the women breastfed and how well they performed on cognitive tests: Women who breastfed the longest (over 12 months) had the highest cognitive test scores.
Context: cognitive health post-menopause
These findings could have potentially huge implications for women – especially post-menopausal women.
While cognitive issues can be troublesome in any decade of life, impaired cognition after the age of 50 can precede the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. Alzheimer’s is a leading cause of dementia and disability in seniors; roughly two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s Disease are women. (Thankfully, there are other ways in which women who haven’t nursed a baby can stave off dementia and feed their brains.) Breastfeeding has also been well established to reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease, two conditions strongly associated with Alzheimer’s risk.
Breastfeeding confers a long list of benefits to a woman, including such perks as stress regulation, infant bonding, and reduced risk of post-partum depression, heart disease, diabetes, and breast cancer.
While more studies are needed to further explore the connection between breastfeeding and cognitive health, it is very possible that we may soon be able to add neuroprotection and reduced risk of dementia to the long list of breastfeeding perks.
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