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Last Updated: Monday, 1 March, 2004, 21:00 GMT
Breast milk 'does cut heart risk'
Breastfeeding
There are undisputed benefits to breastfeeding
Breast-feeding does have a positive long-term effect on reducing blood pressure, research has suggested.

The study, by Bristol University, suggests that breast-fed babies grow up to have lower blood pressure than their bottle-fed counterparts.

If true, the finding, published in the journal Circulation, could mean breast-fed babies are less likely to develop heart disease.

However, some experts doubt that breast-feeding has a protective effect.

High blood pressure
Blood pressure at or above 140mm Hg when the heart is contracting - systolic
Blood pressure at or above 90mm Hg when the heart is relaxing - diastolic
In a paper published in the British Medical Journal in November, researchers from St George's Hospital in south London examined previous research and concluded that some findings might have exaggerated the benefits.

The new study focused on 4,763 children from birth to the age of seven.

The researchers found that children who had been breast-fed had, on average, a systolic pressure reading 0.8 mm Hg lower than those who were bottle-fed.

Diastolic pressure was also lower - on average by 0.6mm Hg - for breast-fed babies.

The findings held even when other factors such as birth weight, and mother's socio-economic status were taken into consideration.

The researchers found that the longer a baby was breast-fed, the larger the effect on systolic blood pressure appeared to be. However, no such effect appeared to apply to diastolic blood pressure.

Significant findings

Although the difference between breast-fed and bottle-fed children were relatively small, it is possible they could still be significant.

Lead researcher Dr Richard Martin said a 1% reduction in systolic blood pressure across the population would prevent 2,000 premature deaths a year in the UK.

He said: "Around 40% of all infants in the USA or UK are never breast-fed.

"If breast-feeding rose from 60% to 90%, approximately 3,000 deaths a year may be prevented among 35 to 64-year-olds."

Dr Martin told BBC News Online that his study was likely to generate robust findings because it had followed the children from birth and was based on a large sample size.

He said: "To assume the effect of breast-feeding lasts into adulthood is still something of a leap of faith, but it does seem that blood pressure levels are set early in life."

Nutrition

The Bristol team believe that the nutritional content of breast milk may be the key.

Breast milk contains long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, compounds thought to affect the development of blood vessels.

Infant formula supplemented with the same fatty acids has also been associated with lower blood pressure.

In addition, breast-fed babies tend to consume less sodium, which is closely linked to blood pressure.

Formula feeding can also cause babies to eat more than they need and can, in some babies, cause them to put on weight too rapidly. Excess weight is another risk factor for high blood pressure.

Many benefits

Lower blood pressure is directly linked to lower risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney disease and other related illnesses.

Separate research has also shown that breast-fed babies are less likely to be overweight, have fewer behavioural problems and may be more intelligent.

The National Childbirth Trust is a strong supporter of breast-feeding.

A spokeswoman said: "Breast-feeding is justified because it is the natural way of feeding a baby."




SEE ALSO:
Breastfeed benefit 'exaggerated'
21 Nov 03  |  Health


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