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The BBC's Navdip Dhariwal
"Still debate over the length of time babies should be breastfed for"
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Professor Alan Lucas
"Western-style diets may be to blame"
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Friday, 16 March, 2001, 12:21 GMT
Prolonged breast feeding warning
Breast feeding has many health benefits
Breast feeding has many health benefits
Breast feeding could increase infants' risk of developing heart disease in later life.

Researchers said prolonged breast feeding was linked to the stiffening of the arteries, which is an early symptom of cardiovascular disease.

But they say the results of their study do not provide sufficient evidence for women to stop breast feeding - which has many health benefits.

Breast feeding can help a baby fight off infections, and is thought to aid brain development. It has also been shown to have some benefits for cardiovascular health.

A team from the Medical Research Council Childhood Nutrition Research Centre at the Institute for Child Health in London studied 331 adults aged between 20 and 28, born at Cambridge Maternity Hospital between 1969 and 1975.

They found those who had been breast fed for longer than four months as babies had stiffer arteries than those who had been breast fed for less than four months, or who had been bottle fed.

Every extra two months of breast feeding also led to a rise in cholesterol levels and blood pressure.


Professor Alan Lucas
Professor Alan Lucas urged women to continue to breast feed
Professor Alan Lucas, director of the research centre, told BBC News Online it was possible that breast feeding stimulated the body to retain more cholesterol.

Studies on primates who were breast fed and then placed on a Western style diet found they absorbed more cholesterol.

But Professor Lucas said the message should be to eat a healthier diet rather than for mothers not to breast feed.

He said: "Breast feeding set us up to cope with the sort of diets that were around when humans were evolving.

"Breast feeding doesn't set us up to deal with Westernised diets or saturated fats.

"The public health message is to deal with the Western style diet rather than breast feeding which has so many advantages."

He added that more research needed to be done, to look at the link with diet and to evaluate the best length of time to continue to breastfeed.

In the study, researchers used an ultrasound technique similar to that used to scan babies in pregnancy to examine blood vessels.

Participants gave blood samples and information about whether they were breast or bottle fed.

Though breast feeding is thought to be good for cardiovascular health, a previous study found men born earlier this century who were still being breast fed at one year old, had higher than expected rates of heart disease when they were 60 or 70.

Breast feeding benefits

Professor Ian Booth, an expert in paediatrics and child health at the University of Birmingham, said the finding should not change current recommendations about breast feeding.

"Independent corroboration in different populations is required before the potential impact of these observations can be assessed.

Dr Mike Woolridge: supports breast feeding
Dr Mike Woolridge: supports breast feeding
"In developing countries the massive benefits of prolonged breast feeding for infant survival and health, together with child spacing, will probably never be outweighed by considerations of ischaemic heart disease 50 years later."

But Dr Mike Woolridge, a breast feeding expert from Leeds University, said: "Breast feeding is an entirely natural normal process, and it is normal to breast feed beyond four months of age, so the ides that evolution has got it wrong is extremely improbable.

He added that the study was highly speculative, and based on a small number of babies. "By my calculations only about 37 babies in the studies would have been breast fed beyond four months.

"So actually, we're looking at a finding based on 37 babies breast fed in Cambridge some 20 years ago."

A spokeswoman for the British Heart Foundation: "This new research gives a further indication that the diet of our early years can affect our health in later life.

"Current advice states that breast is best and we definitely endorse that sentiment.

"Breast milk may help to regulate how babies' bodies deal with fat because babies' own systems are not yet developed enough for this process."

She added: "Perhaps the answer is not to suggest reducing breast feeding, but to encourage heart-healthy eating habits once babies are on solids."

Rosie Dodds, from the National Childbirth Trust, said: "There is no doubt that breastfeeding is extremely valuable for babies, it is the most healthy and natural thing to do."

The research is published in the British Medical Journal.

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See also:

28 Jan 01 | Scotland
Babies' diet linked to heart disease
08 Feb 01 | Health
Breast milk 'reduces heart risk'
06 Jan 01 | Health
Test to predict heart risk
10 Nov 00 | Health
Media 'deters breast-feeding'
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